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by Alyson Hagy

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-55597-548-7
Publisher: Graywolf

An assortment of carefully tuned stories marked by hauntings, curious incidents and hard Western landscapes.

As the title suggests, few strange spirits appear in the fourth collection of short fiction by Hagy (Keeneland, 2000, etc.). But she’s less interested in conjuring scares than in studying how fear and the feelings of isolation unique to Wyoming affect the lives of her characters. “The Sin Eaters,” the book’s longest and final story, follows a preacher arriving from Iowa in 1889 to serve as a missionary for the Shoshone Indians; his travels are marked by a few lessons in area folklore (like the titular sin eaters, spirits that cleanse the bodies of the newly dead) and a glimpse of the violence that suggests that white homesteaders need his attention more than the natives. Most of the stories, though, are set in present-day Wyoming, and Hagy has a knack for conveying the ominous emptiness of the state as well as showing how small twists of fate spin into larger dramas. “How Bitter the Weather” is narrated by a young newspaper reporter trying to locate a missing local man of Romani descent, and her efforts open up conversations about Gypsy superstitions and her own romantic conflicts. “Border” follows a man hoping to make a quick buck stealing a prize border collie, an experience that reveals others’ cruelty and his own gullibility. Hagy’s prose is generally measured and restrained, bordering on grim, but she’s not without a sense of humor: In “Superstitions of the Indians” she pits a snarky graduate student against the ghost of a woman who haunts the library where he works, and the story functions as both a light satire of academia and a lament for the Native-American culture moldering in the stacks. The author is on shakier ground when she experiments with structure, as in “Brief Lives of the Trainmen,” a series of snapshots of railroad workers in the 1860s, but the more successful “Oil & Gas” shows how encroaching corporate interests reshape residents’ lives.

Hagy’s images of Wyoming are a bit too muted to be fully engaging, but her writing is consistently provocative and informed.