The fabulous, the speculative and the surreal make up the stories in Minnesota author Kelly Barnhill’s marvelous collection, “Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories,” a follow-up to Barnhill’s Newbery award-winning novel, “The Girl Who Drank the Moon,” but it’s Barnhill’s sly humor and her poetic prowess with imagery and metaphor that enchanted me most of all.
Barnhill’s humor hooked me from the first page of the first story, “Mrs. Sorenson and the Sasquatch.” A skittish priest watches a dog, a cat and a raccoon process into his church behind Agnes Sorenson, who adored animals and longed for children but married a man who was allergic and infertile. After his death, Agnes opens her doors to all nature of beasts and walks into the sunset with a Sasquatch. “The Taxidermist’s Other Wife” is a creepy tale about the divine in our humanity. Says the taxidermist, it’s “our lack of symmetry,” our “scars and our handicaps” that reveal God, that from a man who has stitched together a new wife.
Barnhill’s prowess with image and metaphor is visible in each story, like the anthropomorphism in the opening tale where the animals behave like humans and the hen-like sisters of the Parish Council “peck” at the priest to do something about Agnes while the “church reeked of men on the prowl.” In “Elegy to Gabrielle,” one of my favorites, a shipwrecked monk records the tale of Gabrielle Belain, “a witch, a revolutionary,” and a bane to slave traders and sea captains. The monk finds life’s meaning in “one curve of a wanton hip of a guileless god” before he vanishes into “the open mouth of the ravenous sea.” In “The Unlicensed Magician,” a clever dystopian fable, a child “kisses” a window pane and “the house shivers,” a comet appears “like a pendant on the neck of the horizon.”
In another favorite, “Notes on the Untimely Death of Ronia Drake,” Barnhill plays with the traditional tropes of fairy tales (stepmothers, magical transformations, “beaded shoes with heels,” bad things lurking in the woods). This story’s magical realism reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s allegory, “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother,” with Barnhill’s “expanding bulk of a stepmother” and her story’s narrative treachery. Who’s wicked? Who’s not? Who’s telling this story?
All the tales are nonlinear in structure, swooping gracefully in and out of themselves while their imagery and themes often repeat. Birds, butterflies, animals and children appear in every story, sometimes morphing into one or the other; death looms, desire consumes, jealousy destroys and “magic — stolen, inherited, or otherwise — is an unwieldy tool.”
Carole E. Barrowman is an author and a professor at Alverno College in Milwaukee.
Dreadful Young Ladies
By: Kelly Barnhill.
Publisher: Algonquin Books, 288 pages, $24.95.
Event: Book launch, 7 p.m. Feb. 20, Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.