Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom. Short reviews of short fiction. This selection comes from The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone.
I found another great story in my Scribner Anthology. Published in 1999, this collection is full of excellent short fiction by authors in their earlier days of writing. For many, their careers are about to take off and I have fun taking a look back in time. Rick Bass has an impressive list of award-winning fiction and nonfiction. His newest book, published in March of this year, is For a Little While – New and Selected Stories. (Click here to read a review from The New York Times and see below for additional recent works and a link to his full bibliography.)
In this excellent story, a man dies the night before his wedding and his fiancée Karen and their friend Sydney are left to make sense of what has happened. But it’s impossible to explain Henry’s drowning in the Mississippi. Why did he go off the bridge? Was he too drunk to know? Could Sydney have grabbed him in time? Karen puts the blame on Sydney. She believes he could have done something. It’s the only way she can process her pain.
How can a man who trains cattle and breaks horses for a living know how to cope with his own survivor’s guilt and help Karen too? Sydney doesn’t think he knows the answer, but an instinct carries him. Knowing how to tame wild horses is suddenly very useful to him. Just like the horses, Sydney tries to “break” Karen and her grief. Taking a beating and never giving up is the sacrifice he must make. “There was nothing as wild as a horse that had never been broken. It just got meaner, each day.” Sydney knows this much. But their relationship is strange, outwardly communicative in only the tiniest of ways and Karen’s behavior is often frightening and alarming. There is no guarantee that any deeper understanding between them can lead them out, even if Sydney is patient.
Bass has a degree in Geology and Wildlife Management and his respect for nature is obvious. In addition to the horse-breaking metaphor, I love how he uses animals and nature to parallel his characters’ desperate situations. In the early days of grief, Bass describes cattle in the fields and how “they would get lost, separated from one another, and would low all through the night.” He makes it easy to imagine Karen and Sydney lost in their grief. Bass also shows how animals endure incredible pain. When Karen gets a job as a vet’s assistant, she helps treat a mule with an infected knee. As if trying to show Karen how to make it, the mule keeps hauling logs because that is the only way to get through it.
Time moves slowly, their healing is barely measurable and Sydney leads, only inches ahead of Karen. He knows his own progress is meaningless unless she follows. And when Karen finally reaches out, he thinks they will make it.
“Wild Horses” leaves me thinking that, in our own human struggles, we can learn a great deal from animals and nature.
For more information about Rick Bass, visit his website at rickbass.net.
Here are some of his more recent works.
The Black Rhinos of Namibia—Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
The Heart Beneath the Heart—Narrative Press, 2012
In My Home There is No More Sorrow: Ten Days in Rwanda—McSweeneys, 2012
Nashville Chrome—Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
All the Land That Holds Us—Houghton Mifflin Harcourt August 2013
Click here to see a full bibliography.
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