“Rising and Other Stories,” by Gale Massey

Gale Massey

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Gale Massey burst into the literary scene two years ago with her acclaimed debut novel, The Girl from Blind River (Crooked Lane), which won a 2018 Florida Book Award, among other accolades. Prior to that novel, some prestigious publications had published her short stories. So it’s no surprise to see she has returned to that format in her latest book, Rising and Other Stories (Bronzeville Books, April 2021), a collection possessing the same gritty intensity and crisp eloquence of The Girl From Blind River.

Though diverse in subject and setting, all stories have certain things in common—first and foremost is the fine quality of the writing. These are exquisitely written snapshots in words, tightly and masterfully constructed with an artist’s attention to the telling details. Each story has an expressive prose poem quality to it, as no words are wasted and each sentence carries a wallop. These stories ring with authenticity, each has a gut-punch moment, and they will not easily leave your mind.

While the subject and settings might be diverse, most of these short stories have a girl-against-the-world theme, similar to Girl from Blind River, in which a seemingly ill-equipped girl or teen confronts loss, conflict, and a pivotal moment in her young life. In some cases, though it is woman-against-the-world, as in “Racine,” where a single mom with two jobs faces a tragic situation involving her emotionally delicate eight-year-old son. Yet another story, “Freedom’s Just Another Word” (an excerpt from Blind River) showcases a young man’s thwarted attempt to escape his dead-end world. “Rising,” the selection that gives the book both its title and one of its most uplifting stories, also deals with a grown woman. But most of the stories revolve around vulnerable female children or teens, and that gives the book an extra dose of poignancy.

Among these stories, loss and grief are powerful, recurring themes. In “Differences,” an overweight teen girl trying to cope with her brother’s death takes a drastic step. In “Lucky Girl,” the narrator states, “Every morning when the dream ended, I woke with grief sitting like a heat wave behind my eyes.” In “Ivy Waters,” a twelve-year-old girl faces her father’s fatal illness as they make one last trip to the river, which “calmed him in a way that nothing else could.” With an especially tender touch, this story shows the depth of their relationship in simple but telling details: “Hank touched Ivy’s hair, a gesture as old as she was.”

In “Marked,” a story which also appears in the award-winning Tampa Bay Noir (Akashic Books), a girl is standing at home plate waiting for the right pitch when she hears the nearby screech of metal against metal of a deadly crash. Later she learns both of her parents were killed in the wreck and she must cope with the loss. She ends up in a foster group home and only begins to find a kind of solace when she joins the ROTC and discovers the power of a gun. That which initially comforts her will ultimately turn on her before the story ends.

Loss and grief are not the only themes, however. In “Glass,” Massey takes a devastating look at the consequences of racism in a story about a one-eyed white veteran whose best friend and boss is a black man, but whose wife is a racist. Told from the point of view of the veteran’s daughter, the story appears deceptively uncomplicated in some ways, with its direct narrative sentences and the narrator’s limited world view, but its impact is potent and anything but simple. The subtlety of the story makes “Glass” ring loud and clear, while showing Massey’s skill at using a child’s viewpoint to construct a vivid world and convey an adult message.

Massey takes her readers into a closed, secret world with just a father and daughter living off the land in “Swimaway.” The narrator—the girl—is all but feral. She and her father make a canoe from the trunk of a cypress tree a hurricane had dropped on their beach. The father intends to use the canoe to leave their shack, but the girl does not wish to go. A “floating band of evangelicals” arrive to baptize them, and there are flashes of magical realism when the girl swims away after the preacher dunks her in the water. In a story with the feel and power of a Flannery O’Connor tale, Massey leaves it up to the reader to figure out what is actually happening in some passages.

The stories in general reflect the resiliency and strength of the characters. While some are defeated and others left in limbo, most of Massey’s girls, teens, and women find a way to survive. They might seek to escape, but they will return and go on. In “Racine,” for example, the single mother “never bargained that curiosity born of boredom would lead [her 8-year-old son] to his uncle’s room. Never figured he would find that pistol in the dresser drawer, much less take it to school and show it off.” In the tragedy that follows, the mother flees—but ultimately, she does not abandon her child or her life.

Water—as plot device, imagery, and symbolism—permeates these stories, giving them a fluid poetic and visual quality. As Massey lives on the Florida west coast near the Gulf of Mexico, she is no stranger to the power of large bodies of water. She makes great use of this knowledge in “Lucky Girl”:

I turned and followed the path to the beach, passed hammocks of pine scrub set against the white beaches and restless water. A flock of gulls screeched their petty battles, picking over the beach’s debris: fish bones, seaweed, strange conchs, and skittish fiddler crabs. …the endless glare of sunlight bouncing off the surf. The pain it caused behind my eyes made me look away.

Dad claimed there are no ghosts, only empty rooms full of rusted chains and broken doors. But he was wrong. In these deep waters, the dead are everywhere.

In “Long Time Coming,” one of the longer stories in the collection, Massey takes her readers away from the waters, when a hard-luck teen girl joins the army to escape her mother and to prove to her step-father “she was not more trouble than she was worth.” Within the story’s sweeping scope, the girl meets an important stranger in the bus station as she leaves town, she makes friends in basic training and “in the mess hall each evening, she learned to laugh a little more freely.” Severely injured in Desert Storm, she finds a life she never expected because of the stranger she met at the bus station.

Desperate choices are highlighted in “The Train Runner” and “Not So Fast.” In the latter, the story takes a blistering look at foster care from the point of view of a seventeen-year-old girl trapped in the system, with a mother in jail, who recognized the “odds were stacked against them but there had to be some way out.” She makes a spectacularly bad choice in looking for that way out. In “The Train Runner,” a girl races a train to grab a coin off the track, and though there is desperation in this story, there is also exhilaration as the narrator “feels it in every muscle, even in her marrow, this youthful, fatal notion that she will live forever.”

In “Rising,” a depressed, married woman with no career and two kids in college, flies to Peru alone in her quest to see a puma in the wilds. This story ends with a clear statement that might sum up the over-riding theme of the collection: “[S]he knew it was enough just to be alive in this world. It had always been enough.”

Rising and Other Stories is a stunning, glorious collection of short stories by a writer firmly in control of her considerable talent.

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