How the urge to find wholeness in one’s life can drive people down unexpected, sometimes destructive paths is the overriding theme of this debut collection.
All the stories center around children in Kentucky’s Bible Belt, many of them emotionally at risk. For newcomer Pneuman’s characters, religious practice is a fact of life taken for granted. Oddly, the title story is the weakest, relying too much on shock value. The narrator’s mother, distraught over her ex’s upcoming marriage, first neglects her daughter’s strep throat, then fails to notice the child’s potentially disastrous fascination with a deranged babysitter. The stories that follow are less extreme but more resonant. In the most heartbreaking, “Borderland,” another child of divorce competes hopelessly not only for her father’s affection but for the affection of the seemingly perfect father of a classmate. In “Holy Land,” a bookish young girl visits her non-religious grandparents with her angry mother after her father leaves them because he believes he’s become divine. In “All Saints’ Day,” a spunky minister’s daughter, whose mother suffers acute depression, risks punishment to help a little boy whose missionary parents believe he’s inhabited by a demon. A new recruit into the Salvation Army struggles against her own psychological demons while visiting her more stable sister in “The Bell Ringer,” one of the few stories in which the child is almost peripheral. The 13-year-old minister’s daughter in “Invitation,” a natural worrier, fears that she’s the first pregnant virgin since Mary. Two overweight 15-year-olds in “The Beachcomber” find their friendship unraveling when only one attracts a boy’s attention. The final story, “The Long Game,” in which a teenager’s father is dying of cancer, intertwines the crises of burgeoning sexuality, a parent’s mortality and the inevitable love-hate daughters feel for their mothers.
Eight well-crafted, tough-minded stories of fractured lives that occasionally slip into caricature and repetition.