Reading a short story collection is different from reading a novel. You don’t sink into it; you ratchet your attention for each new offering.
Reading “How Winter Began” by Joy Castro, a professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska, you are not only alert, but you sometimes squirm.
The collection points out everyday indignities suffered particularly by women of color — Hispanics and American Indians — and by women, generally. You are forced to examine the privilege you might wear lightly, to notice and think about people living in the margins.
Most of these 28 stories, all of them taut and many in-your-face, are told in the first person. On rereading, they reveal their artful construction. They are about restaurant servers, cleaning women, about women forcing themselves to smile when they might want to scream.
My favorite, though, is about a boy. Boys used to be allowed a wide berth. Small acts of mischief and roughness were tolerated. But in “Liking it Rough,” a cruel boy dominates his sister with acts of real menace and sexual malice. The narrator, now an adult, relates how he and his small buddies made the bully pay for an act of cruelty they witnessed one “fever-bright” day. This layered story is full of familiar details, such as a soda pop cooler “that hummed hot air at your feet.”
“The River,” another fine story, is about an older woman named Ilse, the widow of a biology professor, who belongs to the Ladies’ Literary Society of Halford, N.D. She looks forward to the monthly meetings featuring the reading of minutes, the announcements, the literary papers.
With her month to host, Ilse surveys her house, kept spotless by an Indian cleaning woman, Antoinette (from whose point of view another story is told). She feels happy afterward, with compliments about her refreshments. Suddenly, from outside her window, she overhears a couple of younger members, professionals, remarking how insufferable and dated the meetings are. At first crushed, she takes solace in a Katherine Mansfield story about a similar experience had by an elderly Miss Brill: “Remembering the story gave her sustenance, made her determined to not, herself, inhabit the role of a defeated old lady with all her pleasure punctured. … She refused to be a cliché.”
If literature can be a solace, it can also be a spur. These stories by Joy Castro ask us to notice the invisible: a small boy, the “girl” polishing our silver, the older woman hosting the meeting.
Castro is us, alert to each new experience.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and reviewer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.