Hope may or may not change the quality of your life, but it will keep you alive if nothing else will. This is the testament of author and playwright, Sallie Bingham (After Such Knowledge [novel] and In the Presence [play] in her newest collection of short stories.
Yet, the characters don’t have big hopes and/or dreams. They just want to get through life with some joy and some comfort. In the title story, “Mending,” a woman has a crush on her therapist but doesn’t like examining her life during the therapy sessions. Bingham’s imagery here and throughout the book is so forceful that it stops your breath. In one passage, the woman describes therapy: “It was a question of opening my mind to the terrible thoughts that flashed through it like barracuda through muddy water.”
The woman slips into a depression and stops bathing and caring for herself. The author has given us snapshots of this young woman’s past. She may or may not have been molested by any one of her mother’s boyfriends. She never knew her father. Each new insight enables her to continue with the sessions. Little by little, she improves, develops a healthy interest in herself, and stops being infatuated with her psychoanalyst.
There is no major dramatic arc here. Instead there is the recognizable struggle of someone fighting emotional illness. The author outlines the step by step process of reclaiming one’s life.
Indeed, this collection charts the ways we all wrestle with the broken pieces of our lives. Most of the narratives take place in America and during different time periods. A couple of the stories take place in France.
“Found” is set in Paris right after World War II. The story centers on a girl whose family relocated because her father, an American diplomat, has been posted there. She is not really happy with the new location because she speaks very little French and is often left alone by her siblings and parents. The author describes the disdainful way the French servants treat this family. Here, the butler, Jean, serves dinner.
“Butter,” the mother asked piteously, but they all knew from the way Jean turned away that he had no intention of complying.” Later Jean drives the girl to the dentist. When a woman, likely a beggar, approaches the car, he speeds off. “The woman dropped away like a rag,” the girl thinks. Later, Jean leaves the girl stranded in the middle of the city.
However, she is determined to find her way home on her own. Once she does, using what little French she has, she develops self-confidence. She decides to master the language and to make friends at school.
Bingham shows us the girl, her defeats, and her small victories but never gives the girl’s or her family members’ names. The servants have names. The employers do not. This is not as curious as seems.
After the war, French society had a kind of class system with Americans on top. Unfortunately, the term “ugly American,” came out of the conceited attitude that American diplomats and tourists had and have when abroad.
In this work, the Americans have more than enough food to eat. Yet, their French servants are portrayed as having very little food and little of anything else. As exemplified by the family in the story, these Americans don’t seem to need servants but have maids, butlers, and chauffeurs. There is no indication that the Americans wanted to share their bounty or even acknowledged the disparity between them and their servants.
The narrative becomes a metaphor for 20thcentury geopolitics.
In “The Banks of the Ohio,” we see a different kind of caste system--the one based on economic status in America. A wealthy young woman and her boyfriend go for a ride on his boat. “The Dolly” was the only thing Shriver owned. The taxi, of course, was borrowed—he was a college graduate and the taxi job was only for the time being—and the room he lived in on Third Street was rented by the week.” He is not rich, and we soon learn, can’t swim.
The author intimates that Shriver bought the boat to impress his girlfriend, Bay. The story is a kind of pun because the young man is out of his depth with the boat and the girl. She is convinced he wants her for sex. However, the piece hangs on how they fare after the boat is capsized by a cabin cruiser. At that point, his real feelings become clear. It is a very poignant moment.
All of the stories in this collection talk about the human need to fix the broken pieces in our lives. In “Anywhere You Send Me,” an American farmer seems to be giving Haitian refugees a chance at a new life. She brings them to the United States to work on her failing farm. It is a temporary assignment; she stresses. She appears to be ready to accept anything from or about them.
Her handyman introduces them to her, in a way. “Sid slid back the left passenger door and a smell I won’t describe rushed out. I remembered pictures of tent cities, gutters running with refuse, latrines clogged and overflowing. That smell had traveled with them.”
Once the Haitians are ready to work, she takes them to clean up a graveyard on her property. It is the cemetery of slave owners. The slaves are buried outside the wall surrounding the graveyard. When the Haitians learn this, they stop working. The farmer tries to justify asking them to do this work, but she doesn’t really succeed. Apparently, the Haitians are not prepared to accept anything from her.
Maybe she’s a do-gooder. Maybe she’s a racist. Either way, she finds another way to use their talents and show that she has integrity. Luckily for her, the new project prevents her--at least temporarily--from dosing herself with Bourbon every night. Bingham gives us a complex woman with complex needs.
In a strong and insightful story, “The Ice Party,” the husband sizes up a complicated and unmarried young woman who seems to think she knows just what he needs. “He caught a glimpse, then, of the labyrinth she lived in, where every conversation offered a threat, a way though devious corridors, a justification. …a shining justification for a single bed in a studio apartment and an icebox full of orange halves and the other sides of English muffins.”
He hurries home to his wife and new baby after this observation.
Although the collection is a worthy one, Bingham leaves the reader hanging occasionally. For instance, she can be too subtle in describing sexual trauma or death. In “Winter Term,” it’s unclear whether the girl is about to experience date rape or has experienced it already. “Stop it, Eleanor, God stop it,” he said when she tried to hold his hands, and as he dragged the straps off her shoulders she began to cry.” The ambiguity about what’s happening weakens the story.
Despite this, these stories demonstrate, insightfully, the rewards of resilience. People who press on with life get to have lives. They simply have to be unswerving in their belief that the good things will outlast the bad.