I’ve been reading — and loving — Robin MacArthur’s debut collection, Half Wild. So far, the stories are set in rural locations (log cabins, gardens, meadows) and feature women and kids (or young women) battling husbands, fathers, lost loved ones, strangers moving to town, and, most poignantly, the notion of what they might have been. Stories that explore this kind of regret could easily slip into miserable histories which in turn could drag the reader into a kind of fitful, disoriented daze (where are we in the story?). But not so with MacArthur. Her stories move steadily forward showing through sharp details and subtle action her characters’ ongoing conflicts. For instance, the story linked here, Wings, 1989, is about a girl who observes the melancholy movements and actions of her mother while her husband, the girl’s father, is away for work. They are not well-to-do financially, and their need for cash keeps the father away for days at a time — building houses and enjoying the excesses of being away from home/family (getting drunk and stoned with a co-worker), while the mother and daughter are at home picking an insurmountable weed patch threatening the garden, along with the constant pile up of household/cabin chores (the mother’s hands always smell like dish soap). The details in this story, so subtle and perfectly wrought (the 1/2 inch gap in the door frame that the father patches with duct tape) and we get so completely wrapped up in this place and its run-down loneliness, that, by the end of the story, we understand the kind of compounded stress of a woman (the mother) whose dreams and hopes have been dashed by an absent husband, housing developments wiping out the wilderness around her, and, really, a family with whom she does not readily identify, along with the stifled dreams of her past. What might have been.
One of the lovelier scenes is a brief flashback of how the protagonist’s mother and father met; a story that the protagonist can play, “like a movie in my mind.” It’s a skinny dipping scene, but as the mother is jumping in, the reader is interrupted by the mother’s commentary about her future, the kind of knowing that she suspends — or ignores — for an adventuresome spirit (the father) who eventually moves her to a pine log cabin in the woods to start a life and a family.
Wings, 1989 isn’t the only gem in the collection, though it might be the only story found online. If you enjoy rural landscapes filled with back-to-the-land types who can’t seem to get ahead, while fighting substance abuse or absent family members, pick up a copy and enjoy. If you’re not convinced, start with this story here.