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Little America – Book Review

How good it feels to drive a car you didn’t steal.
How good it feels to have a stomach full of food.
How good the little breeze, flowing through the cab.  – from Holy Sisters, page 31 –

Diane Simmons has given readers a lovely and poignant collection of short stories where characters travel across the west searching for happiness and freedom, and sometimes running away from the ghosts of their pasts. Along the way, they discover redemption, the joy of the open road, and occasionally some harsh realities.

In the title story, Hank and Lorraine scam their way from town to town, hauling their daughter, Billie, with them. Cynical and self-centered, the couple don’t seem to have a whole lot of empathy for Billie, and not much moves them emotionally – except maybe dawn breaking over the world’s biggest truck stop.

Hank stopped and looked out over the lines of trucks and the immense, blue sky. Billie was a little worried to hear him speak so soberly and wondered if they were really in trouble. But it seemed it was only the grandeur of early morning at Little America that had caused him to be thoughtful. – from Little America, page 4 –

In Suitcase, Marie arrives in San Francisco in 1972 and connects up with a man named Chick. Together they travel south into Mexico in Chick’s van, sleeping in sleeping bags and on foam cut to fit the van’s floor. Idealistic and jaded by American wealth, they fantasize about joining revolutionaries in Guatemala. But when Marie enters the jungle looking for a place to relieve herself, she discovers something shocking that leaves her reflecting on all she may have left behind.

In the Garden explores the pull of the open road vs. the security of having a little place to call one’s own. On an island just off of Seattle, a couple socializes with friends and remember what it was like to travel around the country during the late 1960s. Despite their settled happiness, they wonder if there is more to life.

We are a little stuck ourselves at the moment, but it doesn’t show as much. We have our little old house that we love. The floors slant and blackberry vines have pushed through where the walls meet, but we like it that way. – from In the Garden, page 41 –

Other stories in the collection introduce readers to a young woman named Pen who is recovering from a wrecked marriage and uses the illness of an estranged aunt to give her a reason to leave the family farm and head to New York City; a mother desperate for love and feeling burdened by the care of her daughter; and a woman who impulsively flees an abusive relationship.

Perhaps my favorite in the collection was the last story – Yukon River – where an ex-con and his girlfriend arrive in Alaska seeking a better way of life. Lured by the clean, cold air and a chance to live a simpler life, they ride their dreams into the wilderness.

He knows how we’ll pull salmon out of the river, cut them in strips, brine them and dry them. How those pickled salmon strips will eat like candy all winter. He knows how we’ll collect berries in the hills around our place – blueberries, blackberries, salmon berries, all in unbelievable abundance – and make them into jam and pies and berry bread. He knows how in the winter we’ll sleep tight and warm as goslings in our good-to-fifty-below goose-down bags. – from Yukon River, page 102 –

Even when their hopes are momentarily dashed by Fairbanks’ polluted fog and the cynicism of an old man, they don’t give up.

And it is this stubborn persistence, this focused effort to make something of one’s life, to be better, or happier, or to find self-understanding which runs throughout all the stories in Simmons’s beautifully wrought book. The characters are connected through their disappointments in life and their struggle to detach themselves from hopelessness. They have been abandoned by parents, deserted by spouses, or fled abusive or neglectful situations. Simmons strips her characters down to that which makes them human. With a wry sense of humor and a masterful control of language, Simmons allows the reader to travel with her characters from their bumpy lives into something fresh and illuminating.

I thoroughly enjoyed this slim book with its troubled, yet triumphant characters. Readers looking for a distinctive and well-written collection of short stories will do well to pick up a copy of Simmons’s Little America.

Highly Recommended.

  • Quality of Writing:
  • Characters:

Overall Rating:

Little America by Diane Simmons
115 pages
ISBN 13:978-0-8142-5178-2
The Ohio State University Press (May 2011)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Diane Simmons’s short fiction has been published in Missouri Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Blood Orange Review, and Northwest Review. Her novel, Dreams Like Thunder, won the Oregon Book Award. She is a professor of English at The City University of New York. Read more about Simmons and her work by visiting the author’s website.

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the author for review on my blog.

6 Comments

  1. October 31, 2011    

    Well, this sounds worth checking out. Great review!

  2. October 31, 2011    

    Wow! I’m fairly new to short stories, and you’ve made this collection sound like a must have!

  3. November 1, 2011    

    This does sound like an impressive collection, and I always find that I end up enjoying short stories a lot more than I think I will before I read them. It sounds like this is something that I should try to check out sometime. Thanks for the great review!

  4. November 1, 2011    

    This sounds like a collection I would really enjoy. Especially when wanderlust kicks in. 🙂 The “Yukon River” passage was especially captivating. Loved it.

  5. November 3, 2011    

    I’m not usually one for short stories but this does sound good. I like the length of a novel but lately I’ve been thinking it might be nice once in a while to have that brevity of a shorter story. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  6. November 8, 2011    

    Kailana: Thanks 🙂

    Kathy: This is a fantastic collection for those readers who don’t read a lot of short stories – very accessible.

    Heather: I love the short story format…so I am biased toward it! But, that said, this is a really great collection.

    Andi: The Yukon River was an amazing story…the whole book is good, but that one really affected me.

    Darlene: The two formats are so different. I love the novel where you can remain enmeshed in the lives of the characters for a longer time, but I think it is actually harder to write a good short story…and sometimes I find them even more moving (like poetry).

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