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  • You must include at least one positive keyword with 3 characters or more.
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On "Scenes from the Heartland" by Donna Baier Stein ***

A standard writing exercise consists of taking an image and writing a description of it. Sometimes this can lead to more, especially as one comes to know the scene or the persons inside the image. This was essentially the process the Stein went through in writing this book. The title of this collection, thus, is an apt one. The scenes here, however, are not photographs but lithographs, all of them created by Thomas Hart Benton, an artist whose work I have only lightly been familiar with before. As an exercise, each story finds success at putting a story to the image. Stein descends into the lives of each character in each piece.In her afterword, the author notes that she wanted to get out of herself, to write about things that were less familiar to her. The lithographs were a means toward this. The exercise resulted in some very heartfelt meditations. That said, there's a part of me that felt like most of the stories strained at times to overcome a setting in time and place that was not the author's own--by that I mean that many of the tales, while well researched, seemed impersonal and even, to an extent, to fall back on the kind of Hollywood stereotypes one would expect when looking at the image rather than thrusting readers into something unfamiliar and extraordinary.The best stories, though, do manage to do something to that effect. The most impressive of all is the opener, "A Landing Called Compromise," a tale that seems deceptively mundane but that builds to a great emotional catharsis."Trouble at the Dance Hall" explores racial relations at a country bar.The title "Morning Train" is a play on words, as the story concerns a family whose son is about to go off to war, to the mom's grief and consternation."Pointing East, Where Things Happen" revolves around a revival meeting and concerns about faithfulness."For Her Own Good" focuses on two children whose father sends his wife (their mother) away for "woman troubles"--as in she has grown dispondent and doesn't do her chores in a satisfactory way. The children, of course, don't care about this--they want mom, and they want to enjoy the fair that they were promised to be able to attend. There's a grief and sorrow that runs throughout this piece, though it's not quite as finally crafted as in some other pieces.In "The Sweet Perfume of Somewhere Else," it hasn't rained in a long while, and the main character dreams of being somewhere else--or more specifically being with someone else, her teacher. But what she wants proves not to be what she imagined, and the story makes an awful turn that has the girl wishing for childhood."Prodigal Son" is a heartbreaking tale about a son who has difficulty dealing with an injury to his father, in some sense blaming himself. The difficulty causes him to desert his family when it needs him most--this for a woman who becomes a quick study in booze and grift."Spring 1933" focuses on lost love an abusive father/husband.The collection ends strongly with "Under the Weight of His Mother's Body," this one about a woman who marries beneath her expectations. I love a story that ends with an opening--especially to more trouble and concern. I'm reminded of a Raymond Carver story called "Neighbors," which ends with a couple who has been doing a bit more than house sitting when taking journeys into another person's house being locked out. That moment bears so much more than the simple pressing against the door. In this tale, an orphan from a small town named Arthur falls for a woman in the big city. A kind man, he's not ready for the demands this woman will make of him or for the demands his small town will either for that matter.Some common tropes arise throughout the stories. At least two men marry women who then descend into various levels of alcoholism. At least two women mourn over sons. At least two fathers prove abusive of their families to various degrees. In fact, if one were to craft a common trajectory in the stories, it is one of disappointment with life's expectations and hopes. That's not to say the stories are all gloomy--in many cases, the characters find something redeeming among the sad events. Another things Stein does well by the collection is to present us with a view of a community at a particular time and place, the kind of linking that I often enjoy in story collections.

"Deliver me from writers who say the way they live doesn't matter. I'm not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn't make us better, then what on earth is it for."
Alice Walker

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Writing is a distinctly human activity.