The ten short fictions in Gather us up and bring us home by Shasta Grant (Split Lip Press, 2017) centre on American small-town life in the 1980s or early 1990s. It feels like the characters could all know each other, have met in school, or at stores or local events, have driven or been driven around in an estate car, like the one pictured on the cover.
The title of the collection uses the last phrase from the final sentence of one of the stories, ‘Us Girls.’ This phrase fits very well with a theme in the collection. Many characters depicted are not ‘at home’ in their lives. In ‘Us Girls’, the mother has left and her young daughter, who now lives alone with the father, harms herself. Her so-called friends bully and taunt her on a sleep-over, find out exactly what she has been doing and make her life even more miserable and precarious.
Esther, the mother in ‘Swimming Lessons’, away from home and lonely as an ex-pat wife in Thailand, is similarly shunned by her peer group for being different and is finally deserted by her only friend, another outsider. In ‘Most Likely To’, the two bored main characters work as exam invigilators and have nothing else to sustain them apart from illicit sex and creating scenarios about the future lives of the exam students. Fifteen years on from their own high-school days, they are adrift and prone to callousness, without satisfying careers or lives themselves.
‘Good Enough’ is a story of a woman who has abandoned her daughter and makes a surprise visit to the daughter’s place of work in the dead-end town which she left years before. The mother admits to herself that she wasn’t sorry to have gone years before. ‘I was happier after leaving and I couldn’t tell her that.’ Nevertheless, the story is full of longing. She wants to feel at ease with her daughter, wants her daughter to allow a new connection, which is clearly never going to take place.
Shasta skilfully pulls us into the lives of her characters. She is expert at the well-balanced paragraph. ‘Us Girls’ demonstrates this brilliantly. The end sentence of each of the ten short paragraphs builds up a sense of menace in the story and leads us into a new action at the beginning of the next, which increases the suspense. For example, at the end of paragraph two, the sentence. ‘None of us knew that it would be the last time we went to Erica’s house’ leads into, ‘We were excited because we knew her dad kept a stack of Playboy magazines in the bottom right-hand drawer of his desk’. The longer paragraphs in ‘Swimming Lesson’ are structured similarly, to great effect.
These fictions are about people who can be unkind, unthinking, desperate, lonely or just wanting to fit in. The characters are interesting in their flaws, not unlikeable. Apart from one written from a male point of view, they are all about the dilemmas of women, often stuck in small-town life and are full of the compromises women often choose to make at different stages of their lives. Teen-aged Katie in ‘Football Season, 1989’ has to deal with a boy Jason coming in between her and her best friend Heather. Jealous and perhaps unconsciously vengeful, she accepts a lift home with Jason when Heather is ill. And then betrays herself too.
‘You’re different from the other girls at school,’ Jason says. Katie doesn’t ask how she is different; she knows he won’t say anything she wants to hear. The truth is she doesn’t want to feel different from the other girls. She reaches for the radio and changes the station. She skips past the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall and then “You got it (The Right Stuff)” before stopping on an Aerosmith song she can’t stand but is popular with the football team. She is learning how a boy gets a girl.
I recommend buying the collection and reading each of the stories several times. Like all good flash fictions, you’ll find more layers in each read.