August Read of the Month: “To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts,” by Caitlin Hamilton Summie

Caitlin Hamilton Summie

Reviewed by Adele Annesi

It’s been said we can’t go home again, but home is a stubborn traveler that tags along in our prickliest family and friends, the people we are and become, the places that fill the heart as no one person can.

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, by Caitlin Hamilton Summie, is a distinctive collection of ten short stories as individual as the people, eras and places they depict. From WWII Kansas City to New York’s gritty Alphabet City, the solitude of pastoral Minnesota to Twin Cities’ metropolises, Summie examines the landscapes and cultures that confine and define us amid the angst of bonds we seek to preserve and break through.

At its core, Ghosts examines an impossibility—the ability to lay our specters to rest. These phantasms appear in the insidious effects of the past, family members who just won’t behave, places we leave but can’t leave behind. The remarkable quality of the collection is its thoughtful treatment of each story’s theme through the specific choice of narrator, perspective, voice, and setting, which consistently shapes and is shaped by those it births, nurtures and often damages.

Because of the varied storytellers, viewpoints and locations, even the varied styles, the collection’s ten pieces work fine as standalones. Yet, when viewed as a whole, each carefully crafted part yields a greater sum. One reason is because the outside world, in its varied forms, infiltrates an otherwise insular realm governed by its own mores. Just in the first four stories there is war and the disappearing fathers of “Tags,” the braided cultural narrative of death in “Growing Up Cold,” the inescapable alienation of “Points of Exchange,” the divergent paths of “Brothers.”

The writer achieves a balance within and among each story by the careful selection and presentation of details. Chooses detail well, recommends Janet Burroway in the classic Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, and makes conscious choices in both “sense detail” and “details that matter.” Since the writer must ground a story in a concrete world, the only way to do this well is to do it with the right details. As Burroway notes, “if you write in abstractions or judgments, you are writing an essay, whereas if you let [readers] use our senses and do our own generalizing and interpreting, we will be involved as participants in a real way.”

There are no abstractions or judgments in Ghosts, only real people and places that involve the reader in a real way.

One might assume that all this careful crafting would generate labored prose—not so with Ghosts. Wisely positioned to showcase the collection’s originality and eloquence is the last story, “Taking Root.” Here is the culmination of the collection’s themes and stories, as tributaries running to their source and destination. Here is a man with one small light against the dark, a man expecting more of Sunday and of faith only to see how easily a day that should be more starts by becoming less.

Living in a clutch of odd neighbors, Al’s existence is validated by the companionship of a lovely golden retriever, Marshall, who chooses Al over his owner. If only Al’s wife, Sarah, also a blonde, had chosen the same. But this is the “it’s not you, it’s me” choice of loss, in this case a miscarriage. And it is the way of loss to accept no setting for treatment but loneliness. Sarah’s departure forces Al, a religion professor, to confront his lack of faith, while Sarah, still out on the road, believes their child is in heaven. When Al’s neighbors have a crisis with their own pregnancy, Al must face his loss. A small miracle is then born of Al’s pain, and only after this can he pray, “Dear Lord, please protect the babies.” Plural. Only after this can he weep.

In the warp and weft of life, loss and upheaval, a sense of place is less about location and more about the fabric of the soul. The same proves true of our prickliest family and friends, the people we are and become, for these shape us as we shape them, often for worse yet on occasion for better.

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