Reviewed by Dan Sundahl
Came a time I drove into old man Engebretson’s farm yard, late 1950s, southern Minnesota. It was a good bright day with a light sugary coating of snow on the ground. The old man had a 40-acre duck pond on his farm and corn rows to walk, ducks and pheasants in abundance. I remember letting the dog out and hunching into my hunting jacket and then listening to the putt-putt of his John Deere. When I rounded the corn crib, he was there, sprawled in the middle of a red circle. His pant leg had caught the power take-off and twisted his leg off at the knee.
No more details are necessary except to say it’s one of those instances of what happens and then what one makes of what happens. What happens are moments of transition and loss and what one makes of what happens depends upon one’s wisdom and compassion.
“There’s what happens, and there’s what you make of what happens” is a phrase that appears in “The Jap Room,” the second story in Soon, this beautifully written collection of eleven short stories by Pam Durban.
She’s a southern writer with a modest but impressive resumé of short story collections and novels written with compelling grace and equally compelling intensity. Mary Hood writes in the foreward to this collection that “Durban’s autumn-themed and time-haunted portraits gathered into this collection have no rivals and few equals.”
It’s easy to agree.
“Rowing to Darien” is the first story in the collection; it’s March 1839 and just after midnight on the Altamaha River. A lone woman is rowing back against the tide from Pierce Butler’s slaveholding plantation; there’s the creak of oarlocks and the splash of oars. The moon throws a bright track on the water and across this track Frances Butler rows, escaping across the river, and as she rows she thinks of her escape as a “mission, not a flight . . . to dignify the journey and keep the fear at bay.”
Frances Butler, neé, Kemble, is no frail flower. We know her as Frances Anne “Fanny” Kemble, a remarkable British woman who did indeed marry an American, Pierce Mease Butler, heir to cotton, rice, and tobacco plantations in and around the Sea Islands of Georgia, and the hundreds of slaves who worked his plantations.
Durban’s story becomes interesting because it relies on Kemble’s “Journal,” a memoir well known in abolitionist times and then published in 1863, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. The story and the journal are thus palimpsest texts, the former layered over the latter.
There’s thus a point to be made here about her intensity: “Durban writes that Fanny owned a private “vow . . . to rescue her husband’s slaveholding soul from the darkness in which it now lived and kindle within it the light of moral conscience.”
The vow becomes in time pointless. When the plantation’s slaves, which include mixed-race children, swarm to greet the newly married couple, she states, “This is idolatry, Pierce, or something very like it.” To which this southern Byron-esque figure responds, “You are their mistress now Fannie.” With that intensity, then, and forcefulness, she responds, “I will not be worshipped.”
The response becomes the not-to-be worshipped metaphor behind Fannie’s rowing away from her husband’s plantation.
“The Jap Room,” the second story in the collection, is both like and unlike “Rowing to Darien.” It’s another marriage story which begins when the narrator first meets Victor, “in the fall of 1941.” There are, however, generations in the story: the narrator’s mother, father, sister, and Jasper, are all present from that time in 1941 forward.
The world has rolled along since that time but like the wind picking up and blowing cold the time that has rolled along has shame attached to it. As a baby, “Chicken Pox had marked [Vic]. In the war, he’d been shot through the face by a Jap sniper on the island of Luzon. The Jap bullet had knocked out some teeth, nicked his cheekbones and left a puckered scar on each cheek.”
There’s a magisterial deftness to Durban’s manner here. There’s little time left in Vic’s life for him to enjoy himself, to enjoy the time left to him. And it’s difficult for him to bring himself “to tell people what he’d done; he acted like he was ashamed of himself.”
The narrator, Vic’s wife, puzzles over these moments and yet forsaking all others she clings to him and wearily prays for his redemption. Finally it’s over, Vic’s life, his funeral, the honor guard, the folded flag, and the hugs from all the old men who smelled like whiskey. The undertaker’s men fill the grave, level and smooth the soil. “At the head of Vic’s resting place, they set up the flag made of red, white and blue carnations that his war buddies had sent, with the words At Ease stamped in gold on the red ribbon stretched across it.”
“Keep Talking” is the shortest story in the collection. It’s another example of how actual but precarious is our place on earth. The story begins with the narrator’s claim, “I saved a man’s life.” With all stories, “That’s a fine place to begin, and what makes the story even better, I didn’t really know him.”
What we know about the man comes from the neighbor, the woman who narrates the story. The man lives across the street in a gray house “under the hickory tree.” They speak once a week when garbage cans are placed at the curb. Every Wednesday a woman carries a laundry basket into the side yard and clips laundry to the clothesline. Time is not an enchanted place in the story and neither is life on this neighborhood street.
She hears, then, a scream: her neighbor’s wife screaming for help. Her husband is sprawled on the porch. The neighbor goes commandingly to work until the man’s chest begins to rise and fall. A few weeks afterwards, he’s home sitting in a chair in late June sun.
And then, strangely, the narrator who supposedly has been narrating facts luminous with meaning explains that she wishes the story had been true, that her neighbor was alive, and that she was a hero: “but he’s not and I’m not and the truth is: my neighbor died and on his porch that day. No one could have saved him, one of the EMTs said when I asked. I had to know because I hadn’t tried.”
Is this a struggle with folly or cowardice? Likely not; more likely the narrator is a character struggling with second and third and fourth thoughts which remind all of us of our unmended ways.
Across the street is human loss interrupting certainty and habit. The man was dead when she got there; she watched the falling away in his eyes. She remembered, though, what a doctor once said about how to help the grievously wounded, the dying. Talk to them; hearing is the last thing to go.
She may not have saved her neighbor but she talked to him about blackberries and how he could have some to eat with sugar and cream. She hoped that when she said those words maybe they carried him through one last moment of fear before the world went blank and the words stopped.
What happens, the story asks, and what does one make of what happens. What does one do with the cold facts? “You keep talking,” the narrator concludes, “that’s all. Spin words around your neighbor whom no love or hope can save, a net to hold him as he falls.”
Keep talking through more stories, rich, resplendent, and magisterial: “Birth Mother,” “Island,” “Forward, Elsewhere, Out,” “Rich,” “Hush,” and “Soon,” the collection’s title story.
The story encompasses three generations of the Long family. If one were to think of this encompassing as first a circle, and then the next generation another circle, and the third another, life comes full circle in one generation; the following generation’s circle, though, does not develop apart from the first generation and neither does the third generation develop apart from previous generations. The process and the encompassing is engulfing, especially for Elizabeth Long Crawford, “born with a lazy eye.”
One morning, then, her father and the doctor sat her down and “told her they were going to fix her so a man would want to marry her some day.” And so she went under, dreaming of the “beauty she would be.”
The consequence, though, is not beauty but blindness, the rise and the downfall of hope. “What do you do with what you’ve been given?” the story asks, and what’s given is a husband and children but a life that becomes unsatisfactory to Elizabeth, hopes dashed for a happy future by the lazy eye and then the blindness both physical and metaphysical.
Her circle encompasses the circle of her son and daughter, both of whom become the subject of constant criticism. When Elizabeth dies, her daughter, Martha, moves on wishing to have nothing to do with her mother’s memory but then wishing she could be closer to her relatives. But the family reunion she organizes reveals less happiness and fulfillment than one more example of the encompassing and encircling rise and fall of hope and despair.
And then it’s twenty-five years past the summer of the reunion and another generation. It’s Olivia’s circle now and an encompassing that leads her to realize that Martha “wanted something out of life that couldn’t be found in one lifetime.” The story ends with the preacher telling the story of the narrow gate, “the strict accounting, the raked, leveled, and weeded ground of the promised land toward which [we all travel] in sure and certain hope of the resurrection.”
Pam Durban writes with depth and mastery and the stories in this collection reveal the universal redemptive power of storytelling. It’s what happens but then more importantly it’s what one makes of what happens. The heart is never stilled, after all, and even though I still hold old Engebretson within the intricate web of my own memory, so be it, I think, so be it….
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