Esteemed in her lifetime but largely forgotten today, short story master Hale (1908-1988) gets a welcome reintroduction in this collection of 25 astute, finely wrought tales.
Novelist Groff, who made the judicious selections, also provides an introduction sketching the writer’s background: Born into Boston’s Yankee aristocracy, the daughter of bohemians without a lot of money, Hale was a debutante who cast a cold eye on the class she came from while enjoying its glamorous accoutrements. The early stories from the 1930s and early 1940s have backgrounds that would have been familiar to Fitzgerald: coming-out parties, jazz orchestras, Ivy League athletics, fast driving in fancy cars. Yet they paint quietly acid pictures of Southern snobbery (“That Woman”), male dominance masking fragility (“Crimson Autumn”), and ethnic tensions in summer communities (“To the North”). Hale is rarely overtly political, but two stories from the '40s, “Those Are as Brothers” and “The Marching Feet,” stingingly make the point that fascism has home-grown versions. Long before the feminist movement was reborn, she acknowledged women’s ambivalence about having children (“The Bubble”) and the potential oppressiveness of marriage (“Sunday—1913”). Hale’s personal experience of mental illness sparks some of the collection's best work: “Who Lived and Died Believing” expertly blends a harrowing account of electric shock treatment with a sharp portrait of a kind nurse’s romance with a callous resident; “Some Day I’ll Find You…” and “Miss August” both anatomize intricate social interactions in psychiatric sanatoriums, the former with a comic touch, the latter in a darker tone. Hale’s prose is elegant without calling attention to itself, like the well-cut dresses one is sure her female characters wear. There’s a slight slackening in some of the later stories, but not in “Rich People” (1960), a marvelously complex examination of a woman’s seething ambivalence about her “high thinking and plain living” family and herself that closes with the anguished question, “Where is my life?”
Classic examples of the art of short fiction, capturing the variety of human experience with sophisticated economy.