In Elizabeth McCracken’s latest collection, “Thunderstruck and Other Stories,” children are in peril. An old woman lures a child with candy and unexpectedly spanks her; a man starves his grandson by padlocking kitchen cabinets. A young girl injures her head on a family trip to Paris; a dead child haunts her mother, who tries to scour her way out of pain. McCracken is too fine a writer to let her prose turn maudlin, even as she enfolds her stories in matters of grief.
In “Something Amazing,” bereaved mother Joyce Goodby considers her sorrow: “You’re filled with tenderness, with worry for every living being, but you can’t do anything. … You are so unlucky you don’t want to brush up against anyone who isn’t.” In “The Lost and Found Department of Greater Boston,” a policeman enters the Blackbird home, from which the mother has gone missing and in which the grandfather has just died. Seventeen-year-old Asher Blackbird, locked out of the kitchen cabinets, shoplifts in order to survive. Walking through the filthy house, the officer “felt only the deep sorrow that visited him whenever he got someplace later than he should have, when he saw how helpless the world was, eventually, to protect its children.”
A few stories stray from the landscape of parents and offspring. In “Property,” Stony Badower laments the recent loss of his wife as he moves into a rental cottage overstuffed with the owner’s things. “The landlords had filled the house with all their worst belongings and said, This will be fine for other people,” Stony believes. Later, he finds that he is mistaken: “This was a house abandoned by sadness, not a war or epidemic but the end of a marriage, and kept in place to commemorate both the marriage and its ruin.” In each of these nine stories, McCracken assigns herself the task of showing her readers that there is no prescribed way to grieve or to love.
Take the love in “Some Terpsichore” between Gabe Macon and Miss Porth — a violent affair based on lies about her purported singing talent. “Love is not oxygen,” Miss Porth says. “Love is food. That’s all. Neither better nor worse. Sometimes very good. Sometimes terrible.”
Sometimes both, as in “Thunderstruck,” when anguished father Wes feeds his daughter marshmallow topping in her hospital bed. In spite of a doctor’s disapproval — “ ‘This is not good for the body’ ” — Wes is “exhilarated” to see his child’s appetite. “Helen was built of want,” he notes, an observation brimming with triumph and pride. McCracken applauds appetite, conjuring it for her readers with ambrosial details that lessen the darkness of these macabre tales.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s fiction has appeared in Narrative, Glimmer Train, StoryQuarterly and elsewhere.