Lockhart’s (Elizabeth’s Field, 2015, etc.) collection of short literary fiction offers a series of character studies.
The 16 stories in this book follow folks in a small town in Maryland called Puckum and the surrounding rural area. The tone is set with the first story, “Beginning with Puckum,” which finds Christmas angels detaching themselves from lampposts on Main Street and sweeping across the landscape, wistful for what they once were and searching for reminders. That symbolism becomes more real in the stories that follow—a grandmother trying to keep her recollections of her family together, a couple tending to a farm and using each other for an uneasy stability, a widow confronted by memories bringing a bag of her son’s clothes to donate to a secondhand store. Most everyone in these stories has lost something. The characters have gone through divorce, watched loved ones die, or come to the sudden realization that the ideal life they’d hoped for isn’t going to happen. The landscape plays a part in enhancing this feeling of loss and nostalgia. Most of the shops downtown have left, replaced by thrift stores in “The Fox Fling.” “The Puckum Family Restaurant” is a classic diner where everyone has a well-established routine. The author imbues her character studies with impressive depth and insight. She has a knack for delivering a lot of detail in a sentence or two. The first paragraph of the final story, “Inside Out,” is a pitch-perfect setup: “He was serious, standing there with his hands in his pockets, his shirt pressed, shorts belted, clear, blue eyes peering down at me, and me, sixteen years older, looking off to the trees, trying to come up with an answer, annoyed at his impertinence.” The two major characters are introduced so the reader can see them and also feel the female narrator’s disposition. She ends up somewhere quite different from her attitude in the first paragraph, finding comfort in her uncertainty, at ease not knowing what might happen next but happy for the familiar things that surround her. And that’s also the note on which the collection ends, paralleling the arc from the opening story.
Emotionally resonant stories for readers who feel wistful and unsatisfied with their pasts, surely a universal experience.