The holiday season adds further strain to complex, tense relationships in this diverse collection of short stories.
In 14 stories, Edwards-Stout (Songs for the New Depression, 2011) assumes an impressive range of voices: ball-breaking business woman, grade schooler struggling with gender identity, mother-to-be and transgender father, uprooted domestic worker, and more. This willingness to step inside the minds of such disparate, often nonmainstream characters hints at Edwards-Stout’s confidence as a writer and his broad life experiences. While a book that shifts perspectives so frequently could become dizzying, Edwards-Stout tethers his characters to recurring themes of giving, holidays and acceptance. In “The Old Rugged Cross,” Cassandra follows her son, Reggie, from Alabama to California. He’s a fireman, a profession that killed his father, Cassandra’s husband. While Cassandra is content in Jackson, Ala., and in the honest work of a domestic, she misses her son and yields to his pleas to relocate: “He was all she had, aside from Jesus.” But when Reggie dies just before Christmas in the line of duty, Cassandra abandons Jesus and her old, weathered Bible: “[S]he banished it to a drawer, piling other books on top, as if to suffocate it.” Cassandra revels in being forsaken until she learns to accept her son’s choices, his dedication to service and her own source of passion. Acceptance—of oneself and of others—is Edwards-Stout’s resounding message. Elsewhere, in “The Cape,” a young man struggles to accept the death of many friends from AIDS; in “Hearts,” a high school girl learns to accept being Jewish; and in “Gifts Not Yet Given,” a mother finds a heartbreaking but tender way to accept giving her child up for adoption. Edwards-Stout’s stories are original and important, yet the delivery isn’t flawless. Awkward sentence structures throughout the book tend to stall reading and force characters to perform the impossible: “Running back out to the car, Paul hauled in his last items.” And in several stories, a change of heart comes too easily. For instance, during a single visit, a mother appears to abandon her lifelong bias against her child’s gender identity. Readers appreciate some resolution, but the kind of acceptance these characters seek is often too easily won here.
Uneven writing but provocative stories with a clear, vital message.