Schulz’s debut fiction anthology contains 26 short stories of varying formats and lengths, each anchored on the common framework of a small, Western farming community called Havelock, an unpretentious place far from the big cities. Between stories, Schulz intersperses tongue-in-cheek snippets from the town’s various announcements and advertisements, like one for the Havelock Mortuary: “We are the only mortuary in town. So it’s either us or behind the barn.” The stories range widely in both tone and scope; some are very short, little more than bits of dialogue with stage directions, while others, although usually still quite short, are far more complex and ambitious, such as the collection’s most gripping piece, “Terror in the Heartland,” which opens with a trio of strangers driving onto the isolated farm of an old couple who’s been there 20 years. The visitors trigger the husband’s suspicions, and when the men return armed and obviously intent on murder, they get the story’s well-executed surprise: The seemingly mild-mannered old farmer is a retired special agent more than capable of defending himself and his wife. “The AK-47 is a dependable and an easy weapon to use,” he muses. “I had many friends who were killed with this weapon.” Equally detailed but entirely different in tone is “Gone Fishing,” in which a workaholic bank employee in North Dakota goes on a road trip to go fishing, though he suddenly finds himself back in the 1950s, able to visit his parents’ farm as a young man and get a second chance at living his life. This note of nostalgia runs through most of the stories—a strong evocation of simpler times full of common sense and daily kindness. Lost and lonely people in dire straits (“Mary started the winter without any supplies or coal, and a dead husband”) are saved again and again by the simple kindness of others; in one bleak story, hope is brought by none other than Santa Claus.
A touching, effective collection that will keep its smiling readers guessing.