“Landscape and Dream” by Nancy Krusoe

“Landscape and Dream”
by
Nancy Krusoe
from The Best American Short Stories – 1994

Rating:

I feel a sense of peace when I drive through the farmlands in our area, when I see the cows and the farm houses and the barns where the cows go. These scenes give me a glimpse of that simpler life, a visual escape from the complicated modern world. But my thoughts are naïve, I know that. I know nothing about dairy farming or how to live a life like that. I don’t know what kinds of struggles there are, the difficult parts. I only imagine the simplicity of hard work and that refreshes me. It’s foolish. I know that.

I was drawn to Nancy Krusoe’s “Landscape and Dream” because I wanted to feel that same tranquility. I got something different, something cold and raw.

A young farm girl narrates this story and she describes the barn where she goes every morning to help her father and brother milk the cows. She is little and has just a small job. One day she will be in a kitchen instead, because bigger girls and grown women don’t go in these barns.

The scene is peaceful at first, made so by the immense, but calm bodies of the cows. But as the girl describes her mother and the kitchen window, you get a different sense of what life is like here. The girl feels connected to the cows, is part of their experience. She loves them. They find their stalls, wait to be milked, know their place, like her mother in the kitchen.  The girl feels so connected she eats the mix of oats, along with the cows. And then she thinks of her mother.

Krusoe writes:

In the kitchen, it isn’t a happy time of day: cooking breakfast, half moon, half dark. My mother stands there waiting. Anyone could come, even cows could come to her flower bed outside the kitchen window, could lie down and wait with her for the farmer – and the daughter – to return. There is nothing to stop them from coming to her, coming to her window, nothing at all.

There’s something lonely about those words, someone could come, but there is much waiting.

Next the girl describes the farmer (her father) and how sometimes men beat their dairy cows. She watches her father beat a young cow with an iron bar. It’s an ugly scene. The girl wonders, “Is the cow crying? Heaving, trying to stand up on her feet (her feet are so pretty – little hooves like tiny irons), which slip again every time he hits her.” She doesn’t recognize her father when he takes off his glasses, sees his swelling eyes and a raging face. But these scenes will go unreported to her mother in the kitchen, who still waits.

Finally, the girl tells of a recurring dream in which phantom men on horseback rise from the earth and circle the farmhouse, coming to take her away. But like her mother, the girl stays. “Like her, I became a cow and I became a mother. I became the barn and the hill, the lake and the water cows drink from the lake, the salt and the saliva in their mouths. I became, for a while, entirely these things – nothing more. And this is not enough.”

There isn’t much hope in a scene like this, except perhaps the young girl’s determination to make something more of her life. But I liked it anyway.

Nancy Krusoe is an American author who was born and raised in Georgia. She wrote this story as a student in a Theory of Fiction class in the creative writing program at California State University. Her work has appeared in Magazine, The Santa Monica Review, American Writing, and The Georgia Review. I was unable to find additional information about Krusoe, except for a book called Hens, Cows, Canoes/Wallpaper, co-authored by Krusoe and Lisa Bloomfield, published in 2008, but currently out of print.

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“Nicodemus Bluff” by Barry Hannah


“Nicodemus Bluff”
by
Barry Hannah
from The Best American Short Stories – 1994

Rating:

Middle-aged Harris is trying to dry out from thirty years of numbing drugs, a self-induced stupor that’s been partly assisted over the years by Mr. Kervochian, the town druggist.

Ten-year-old Harris is trying to understand what’s going on inside the deer lodge where he and his father, Gomar, and a group of men from the town have gone for a hunting trip. The weather’s gone bad; torrential rain has blocked them in and the men are drinking hard and playing poker. From outside, Harris hears loud, angry voices and is uneasy. When he enters the lodge he sees his father and Mr. Pool, the town’s banker, one of the men who has loaned his father a great deal of money. They are deep in concentration, sitting at a table, a chess board between them. Harris thinks these men are his father’s friends, but seeing their faces, he isn’t sure anymore.

Gomar is uneducated, rough, but he’s been smoothing out his image. He’s on the rise, helped, he believes, by these men. A real estate man, Gomar thinks he’s also helped his new friends out on a big land acquisition, and that this deal will buy him some time on the loans he’s behind in repaying.

The chess match frightens Harris, who knows that Gomar has an uncanny ability to beat every opponent. It doesn’t fit, this talent, and Harris can see the dark anger and disgust on Mr. Pool’s face. A man who struggles to read should not have this edge. And to make it worse, Gomar enters a different kind of state when he plays, crafty, and decidedly female in his gestures and words, a goading, thinks Mr. Pool.

As Harris and Mr. Kervochian walk down to Nicodemus Bluff, Harris learns about the twisted and controlling power of money and loans. He does not yet understand that his father is in the same miserable situation as Nicodemus from years ago, a black man deeply in debt to the Pool family, now buried under the bluff.

This story is about money and power and class, but it’s also about women and class, particularly Harris’s mother, who is from modest means, but carries herself with dignity and is esteemed because of her beauty. Young Harris does not grasp any of this and, now a man who has wasted half his life; he’s just at the edge of the fog.

Barry Hannah tells a terrific story here, one that gives you a horrible gut feeling as you read. You know it’s headed to a bad place, you just don’t know how. His character descriptions are so real you can feel the tension in the lodge. You can feel the same confused dread Harris feels. You think you are grateful to Mr. Kervochian for his efforts to look after Harris at the lodge, but wonder about the thirty years that have passed.

Another great short story – check it out!

Barry Hannah from Vanity Fair
Barry Hannah
from Vanity Fair

Barry Hannah was an American author from the south, who lived from 1942-2010. He wrote a great deal of fiction, beginning with Geronimo Rex which was published in 1976. At the time of his death, Hannah was director of the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, where he taught creative writing for 28 years.

Here are two great links that describe Hannah’s life and career:

Writers and Musicians
New York Times

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The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells pic
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
by
Andrew Sean Greer

Rating:

What would you do if you discovered yourself living different lives during different times? What if, in these other lives, you had the chance to fix things, to point others towards happiness, or to alter your own life? What if you found a chance at happiness in one of these alternate lives, a chance that has been lost in your present life? These are some of the central questions Greta Wells must contemplate in The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells.

I loved this very original story by Andrew Sean Greer, in which Greta discovers her 1985 self living in two other time periods, one in 1918 and one in 1941. In her modern world, Greta has just lost her adult twin brother to AIDS. Her long-time lover, Nathan, has left her and Greta is impossibly lost. Feeling hopeless, she agrees to electroconvulsive therapy and is surprised to find herself living both similar and different lives in these earlier times. During this twelve-week period, Greta receives twenty-five procedures and cycles between her three “impossible” lives. Early on, Greta wonders, “So maybe I can perfect their lives. And maybe, while I’m missing, they can perfect mine.”

These lives all take place in her Patchin Place apartment in Greenwich Village and Greta finds things that are both familiar and unknown about her circumstances. In her 1918 life, she has been unfaithful, in 1941 she has been betrayed and in both she watches as her brother Felix struggles to find a way to reconcile his homosexuality with what the times expect of him. Greta sees the relief and euphoria of one war ending and understands how only she can know that another war is coming.

Greta describes the 1918 soldiers returning from war and celebrating the future:

These same soldiers would come home, never speaking of what they’d seen, and marry those girls and raise children, and they would send those children off to war again. With Germany, again. We would be here again, in this parlor singing this same song. I stood there, in wonder, at the madness of it all.

While this is technically a story about time travel with well-placed historical references that really take you there, it’s mostly a story of love, understanding, forgiveness and second chances. I think the author does a great job showing Greta’s desire to get it right with Nathan, in at least one of her lives. She works hard, too, to create happiness for Felix by steering him towards the right people and encouraging him to acknowledge his homosexuality to her. In addition, Greer shows Felix’s personal pain of not fitting in, but desperately trying to do the right thing. These double-layered efforts fit just right with the twin relationship between Greta and Felix.

I’ve read some reviews complaining that the story is confusing. Its complexity did not bother me and, once you get the characters and their lives down, the story drives itself. I felt invested in all three time periods.

Here are some of the things I liked about the book:

  • Greta’s relationship with Nathan in 1941. Her capacity for forgiveness in this time period is very moving.
  • Learning about Patchin Place in New York. It’s fun to imagine what this part of Greenwich Village looked like then and Google Maps shows a great picture of the gated entrance.
Patchin Place in 1910
Patchin Place in 1910
Patchin Place now
Patchin Place now
  • The secret key and room in the Washington Square arch.
  • Greer’s use of three different clocks at the beginning of each chapter, with different times on each face. I can’t figure out what the different times mean, but I like thinking about them anyway.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“There almost has to be a heaven, so there can be a place where all things meet.”

“We are so much more than we assume.”

“What is a perfect world except for the one that needs you?”

“Mark your hour on earth.”

“I understood nothing, Felix. But it was a great show.”

A little bit of fantasy, a little bit of history, a little bit of sadness, and a lot of hope and understanding – this is a great read!

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