Apparently the word linked has become profane to much of the story-writing community—and sadly thus to the story-reading community as well. It became so, however, only after the word began to be used in a new way. It had been used as an adjective full of nuance representing, roughly, the resonance that made a collection a book, and not just some stories someone wrote. The problem is that publishers and writers seem to have redefined linked in a way that smacks of a rigid formula—of a pigeon’s hole. It now specifically embodies the following qualities: recurring characters, localized events, parallel conflicts, and/or a universal theme or situation. Take a look at the bookstore. Most new collections of short fiction will have at least one of these qualities, sometimes more. You won’t have to look long; they will be proudly advertised in book-jacket copy and in catchy blurbs. That’s marketing, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it means more books are sold and read. What is problematic is when a book reads as if written with a jacket-flap hook in mind.
When I picked up Angela Pneuman’s Home Remedies, I had the sinking feeling that hers was this kind of book. Her hook, it seemed, was to shine a light into the darker corners of Kentucky, places peopled by conservative Christians. I mentally checked localized events and universal themes off my list. As it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised. Four of these eight stories feel like they are part of a truly vibrant collection. The characters are bigger than the pages they inhabit, not because the stories themselves are small, but because the characters register a humor and terror that are so large.
These four are successfully connected, not by anything easily blurbed, but by Pneuman’s subtle explorations of female rebellion and her characters’ urges to overcome static inertia. Each story is a contained world—there is no spillover of characters or obviously paralleled conflict. Kentucky does not dominate the reader’s attention. There are churches in every story, but again, they are not central. “All Saints Day,” the story most closely associated with religion, takes place in the fellowship room of an evangelical church, where the kids are putting on a bible character costume-show down the hall from an exorcism. But even here, conservative Christianity seems peripheral.The quiet resistance of a girl against her community is the real story. The reader might be surprised to wonder at the end if there really is a demon in that boy down the hall.
The title story and “The Long Game,” which bookend this collection, make it absolutely worth owning. Both are about young girls asserting their independence from divorced mothers. The girl in “Home Remedies” does so by convincing her nurse to give her a tonsillectomy using a curved knife previously used by the nurse’s mother to sever umbilical cords—not so subtle a metaphor, but earned. In “The Long Game” the protagonist asserts herself against her mother with a golf club. “Invitation,” the fourth gem in the collection, shows how a girl at a camp meeting, where her father is the pastor, deals with a paralyzing fear of premarital sex.
The other four stories, however, feel more like filler, almost as if included to conform with a neat book-jacket hook.They too show young women and girls in various states of rebellion, but going to extremes that Pneuman doesn’t quite earn. But even these lesser stories show her skills as a solid, careful, and funny writer—worth reading and definitely worth watching out for.