“The Age of Discovery and Other Stories” by Becky Hagenston

It is not often that an author can produce a prize-winning short story collection. To produce four in a row is simply astounding. And SLR just learned Mississippi author Becky Hagerston has just  won yet another award, the Story Foundation Prize for a short story entitled “Woman of the House.” It will appear in Story Magazine sometime this year.  In her fourth prize-winning short story collection The Age of Discovery and Other Stories (The Ohio State University Press/ Mad Creek Books 2021), Hagenston creates stories of depth, complexity and humor. Her subjects in this collection range widely, stretching from considerations of the South to touring the south of France, from troubled relationships to the inevitability of marriage, from faith healers to witches, from world apocalypse to personal. Each of Hagenston’s stories is a trip well worth taking, fun in the reading but hiding a thoughtful center, which is occasionally hard to shake off. In that respect, she seems much like Joyce Carol Oates.

In one story, “Seven Ravens,” after a bad first date, Ned is grocery shopping and deciding never to see Alexis again, when she calls him and asks him for a favor. She’s in the hospital. It happened that while chopping onions she accidentally cut off her index finger. She’s pretty certain it’s still in the kitchen somewhere and she asks him to drop by and fetch it for her. From that grows a rather intimate, if unusual, relationship.

In another story, “Perishables”, the neighborhood is having a potluck, but instead of it taking place in someone’s backyard, as one would expect, it’s on a traffic circle. No cars use the street and one of the neighbors brings his shotgun along with the carcass of a deer. Step by step, things grow strange. The electricity is on only two hours a day, people are living off the food they had stockpiled, cellphones and the media haven’t worked for months, and an internet troll, who had rejoiced over his anonymous posting of hateful messages is increasingly and dangerously frustrated. Invaders are rumored to be roaming, but no one knows who they are or where they might be from or what caused everything to fail. Danger is everywhere.

And of course, there are troubles in the family. In “Storage and Retrieval”, a woman waiting for her plane hears her dead ex-husband paged. She’s drawn to answer the page, where she sees a man much like her ex-husband might have become standing at the counter. Had he faked his death? Was she really sure she had heard he was dead? She becomes tangled in her thoughts and follows the man, missing her plane. In “The Age of Discovery”, a husband and wife are touring Lisbon. The husband has had an affair and gets a series of mysterious text messages. Their daughter has run off with a middle-aged man who is hunted by the police, and the texts might be from him, but the husband won’t say. The wife becomes unsure, not certain she even knows who her husband is anymore. In “Witnesses”, sisters are in Nice and are having trouble getting along together, which is intensified by witnessing an automobile accident in which a woman, who we learn is half-hysterical and in the process of divorcing her husband, is killed.

And there are the completely strange stories. “In the Museum of Tense Moments,” the action takes place in an unknown future and the narrator brings her daughter to the museum to see what awkward, heart-breaking moments in the 21st century were really like. In “Hi Ho Cherry-O,” also a Pushcart prize-winning story, a reference robot refuses to assist in data collection unless it is first abused. In “Rise,” the objects in his wife’s dreams somehow lodge themselves in the husband’s bakery bread. In “Hematite, Apatite,” an Earth Science teacher is accused of witchcraft, which is apparently more harshly punished in Mississippi than in Newark, and she is driven by this social pressure to finally re-enact a fairy tale.

There are other great stories in the collection. Celebrities transform a town, a child is lost in a cornfield, a mother mistakenly decides to give her children her diaries, a couple are in Arles following in Van Gogh’s footsteps only to realize how really old they are, a disgraced university professor and a struggling student intertwine in an act that swamps the campus, and two sisters tracking Bigfoot come to realize in different ways that there is a nasty core inside each human. There is a wealth of insight and wisdom and a little haunting weirdness in all these short stories, and short stories, in the hands of a master, are fiction’s purest distillations. It would truly be a shame to miss the ones Becky Hagenston writes.

Becky Hagenston

Becky Hagenston is the author of four award-winning story collections, most recently The Age of Discovery and Other Stories, which won The Journal’s Non/Fiction Prize and was published by The Ohio State University Press/ Mad Creek Books in August 2021. The collection also won the Mississippi Institute of Arts & Letters prize in fiction. Becky is a Professor of English at Mississippi State University and lives in Starkville, Mississippi with her husband.


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