Andrea Barrett won a National Book Award in 1996 for “Ship Fever and Other Stories.” A later book, “Servants of the Map,” a novel, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her new collection, “Archangel,” consists of just five stories set between 1873 and 1939, a time of great change in scientific understanding. Here’s how the first story, “The Investigators,” set in 1908, begins:
Early that June, Constantine Boyd left Detroit with his usual trunk but got on a train headed east instead of west. For the past three summers he’d worked at his uncle’s farm in western Michigan, but now, just as he was becoming truly useful, his family had made other plans. Because a different uncle had requested the loan of him, he was being shipped elsewhere: like a harrow, or a horse.
He was twelve that summer of 1908, and he sulked all the way to Toledo, napped between Toledo and Cleveland, woke angry with his absent mother but then forgave her in Erie, when he found the cookies she’d slipped in beside the sandwiches. In Buffalo he passed a bank that looked like a castle, horses plodding along the canal, and a gigantic electric hoist moving grain from a ship into an empty boxcar. At the station where he switched for the train to Bath, he saw a motorized bicycle, one of the very sights his mother had promised, being chased by a terrier, and with that his bad mood slipped away. He was going someplace near water, he remembered. With new people, new things to see and do, away from the steaming city and his father.
In Bath, one of those new people carried Constantine’s trunk to a dusty automobile. “It was made up the road in Syracuse,” his mother’s younger brother said, running his knobby hand over the hood. “I know the engine’s inventor.”
“My mother says you’re an inventor too, sort of.”
“More of an … investigator,” his uncle said modestly. His hair was springy, almost wiry, brown strands mingled with surprising gray. “But I’ve made a few small things. Have you ridden in an automobile before?”
“Twice,” Constantine said, doubling his one ride in Detroit.
“You’re an old hand, then. Now” — the engine started with a clatter — “what shall we call each other? I’m not old enough for the whole uncle business. Why don’t you just call me Taggart?”
Excerpted from “Archangel: Fiction,” by Andrea Barrett. Copyright © 2013 by Andrea Barrett. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.