Alone and alive

Leah Holbrook Sackett, Catawampus in Sweetgum County (Adelaide Books, 2022)


‘Sweetgum County is a place where death lingers on the doorstep of the soul’ declares the author before we have even reached the Acknowledgements. A faint-hearted reader might turn no further.

Death is certainly ubiquitous in Leah Holbrook Sackett’s literary landscape. But her short stories (many of which first appeared in one of an impressive array of literary journals) are often more surreptitious than sinister.

The collection uses its distinctively bland setting to paint a vivid picture of small-town midwest USA. Marriage, religion, school… characters’ concerns are mostly everyday in this place of ‘suburban sprawl with limited options’, as one character, newly arrived from Kansas City, puts it.

Nostalgia and anonymity run through most of the stories. Yet Holbrook Sackett’s prose is easygoing and intimate. Her observant descriptions are full of wit and piercing little asides that masquerade under a cloak of neutrality.

Solitude is also a common theme in the collection. Although Sweetgum County appears a tight community, many of its residents are desperately lonely. In ‘Spooning’, Nancy, alone after her husband of 35 years has absconded with a younger woman, replaces physical intimacy with ice cream. ‘Let Your Uglies Take Root’ uses Kafka, Boo Radley and Nirvana to highlight the isolating effects of bullying. In ‘Most Marriages Performed’, solitude is more ambiguous: ‘Moira and David had a renewal of their wedding night… blissfully alone in their union’.

In Sweetgum County, disappointment goes hand in hand with loneliness. ‘A Spot Not Blue’, first published in Issue 1 of Briefly Zine, stages the awkward meeting of a swimming pool and a boy, ‘as he realized the water was just clear, water without color’. Meanwhile, in ‘The Rome Club’, six acquaintances partake in an old tradition, whereby ‘the last man of Sweetgum County standing wins’. Even this ultimatum does not lead to foul play. And the winner sobs rather than celebrates upon discovering his lonely victory.

On occasion, the author forays into cultural clashes. An illiberal weddings policy is ‘a small threat in an otherwise accepting culture’, according to the narrator of ‘Most Marriages Performed’. Yet backwards traditions sometimes clash with more forward-looking mores, notably in ‘The Ron Jeremy of Klingons’ where a Trekkie must leave Sweetgum County to achieve her sexual liberation. It is telling that, in the end, she isn’t tempted to stay in her new fantasy world, concluding her adventure with matter-of-fact resolution: ‘It was time I headed back home to Sweetgum County’.

Sweetgum County is both a magnet and a vacuum. Things are happening; things that should be paid more attention. As the narrator muses in ‘Going to the Chapel’, ‘It’s one of those moments that doesn’t get captured, but it should. It is the apex of video posts on Facebook, very likely to go viral. But there was no one to capture the event.’ Catawampus in Sweetgum County captures an array of events, both ordinary and extraordinary. The reader too will be pulled back for more.


Leah Holbrook Sackett, Catawampus in Sweetgum County (Adelaide Books, 2022). Available here: https://adelaidebooks.org/products/catawampus-in-sweetgum-county-short-stories

Write 10, Win 10 (2022) – Results

Thank you to everyone who submitted ten words to the second edition of our tiny contest. Once again, we were amazed by the quality and inventiveness of our entrants’ brief writing.

This year’s theme was Reflection, an idea that can be (and was!) taken in many directions. Some writers looked in the mirror; others became the mirror. Some reflected on past lives or loves; others saw themselves reflected in people or places.

We found some absolute gems in this year’s 121 entries, including the winning and shortlisted stories published below. Every contribution sparkled in its own way, offering a brief window into a moment or memory.

Huge congratulations to Kate Twitchin and thank you again to everyone who shared their words with us: every single one was enjoyed and appreciated.


WINNER

Initial response, vitriolic. Stop, save, sleep. Pride digested, edit, send.

Kate Twitchin

SHORTLIST

Two pillowed heads turn away. Loneliness scrolls through handheld light.

Jenny Wong

I jump into the sky puddle. Splosh. Ghostly trees vanish.

Hannah Powell

The mirror looks at me. I cannot meet its gaze.

Sean Cullivan

At intersections, I envy roads. Neither to turn nor go.

Mandira Pattnaik

Shoes on feet! Am I going out or coming in?

Ann Phillips

Long orphaned, my reflection finally reunites me with my mother.

Laura Besley

After the splash in the dam, the still moon again.

Billy Antonio

The water, once pure, can hold your reflection no more.

Annelies Paris

I never thought I would follow in my child’s footsteps.

Scot Martin

Cycles, signs and silence

Laura Besley, 100neHundred (Arachne Press, 2021)


In her second micro collection, Laura Besley weaves together one hundred stories of one hundred words to create one neatly jumbled narrative web. Arranged into four equal sections (to represent the seasons of a year), she uses a clear framework to complicate the seeming simplicity of the cycles that underpin our lives. Under Besley’s masterful control, the seasons are simultaneously signs and silence, fundamental but inadequate.

A sense of absence haunts many of these micro narratives. The narrator draws our attention to words in the margins, to an unrecorded note, a discarded notebook and words left unspoken. Voids can appear in busy settings and absence is shown to be liberating. In ‘Empty Nest’, a woman delights in the opportunity to be (by) herself: ‘For a couple of hours, I’m not a wife, not a mother. I’m just me.’ Motherhood is a recurring theme, whether individual or collective, and Besley presents the joys and challenges of being (or not being) a mother in a sensitive and balanced way.

The most poignant season is “Spring” in which Besley portrays a menagerie of missed opportunities. The section chronicles a series of countdowns and failed cycles that culminate, fittingly, in a warning from Mother Earth: ‘I tried to warn them, and/ they grumbled about the clouds of ash which/ grounded their planes…’ (‘Early Warning’). In this story, Besley makes use of poetic shape to contrast the signs available with human inaction. After reading the chilling final lines, the reader feels obliged to flick back through the whole section with a more attentive eye.

I only needed to post a letter, but managed to make the errand last all morning

‘Invisible’

An important aspect of 100neHundred‘s composition is the combination of past, present and future. Futuristic scenes of robots taking over homes share the stage with blasts from the past (Blockbuster makes an appearance in ‘Five Digit Pin’). These conflicting temporalities meet head-on in a complicated present that can’t leave the past behind despite being aware of the need to move on. In this context, Besley plays an interesting temporal game in ‘Don’t Look Ahead’ where the present-day character supports the future self. The story subverts the traditional carpe diem message by infusing it with a more subtle and responsible quality. A new (less succinct) mantra could be: don’t obsess about the future and make sure you enjoy the journey, but don’t forget that today’s decisions create tomorrow’s world.

Besley writes with sensitivity and an acute awareness of what to include in the frame and what to omit. In ‘How the camera lies’, she stages the limitations of the snapshot to remind her reader to look beyond surface appearances. Every story in 100neHundred is worthy of a re-read; the entire collection deserves many more. The careful reader will be rewarded with new connections each time: the dynamic, shifting images feed off one another to deepen meaning and trouble our superficial interpretations. Besley’s mini cycle is a huge success.


Laura Besley, 100neHundred (Arachne Press, 2021). Available here.