In her second collection of stories, Danielle Evans maintains the blend of levity and sorrow that marked her debut. Violence, abandonment and racism abound in “The Office of Historical Corrections”; the characters’ senses of humor surface as a kind of salve.
In “Happily Ever After,” Lyssa, working at a tourist-trap replica of the Titanic, is informed that she is never asked to play a princess role at children’s birthday parties for reasons of “historical accuracy, meaning no Black princesses.” More important, Evans points out that Lyssa “hadn’t asked” for the explanation.
Evans’ exploration of racism highlights both the demonstrative — in “Alcatraz,” the narrator’s mother is ostracized by her own family — and the casual exchanges among co-workers or friends.
A casual encounter becomes a fully defining moment for Claire in “Boys Go to Jupiter,” when a photograph of her ignites controversy on her liberal arts college campus. Evans paces the story beautifully: Claire accepts a gift somewhat unthinkingly, the thoughtlessness itself a mark of privilege, but her robust defensiveness, followed by outright antagonism, are not tied to philosophical positions.
Evans gives Claire an intricate back story — a mother who dies from cancer, involvement in a neighbor’s fatal car crash, a shrill stepmother named Puppy — and the story struggles, at times, to contain its various conflicts and tragedies. The prose is too strong for the occasional excess of plot, or flashes of cinematic dialogue, to detract from the work.
Evans is unafraid of the improbable. “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” features a dangerous volcano in an art gallery; in “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain,” a temporarily jilted bride, Dori, and Rena, a guest she barely knows, take a detour to a water park on the day of the nuptials. Like Claire in “Boys Go to Jupiter,” Rena has a catastrophic past, and harbors nostalgia corroded by grief.
Nostalgia, memory and history are themes in this collection; in “Alcatraz,” the narrator’s mother devotes much of her life seeking reparations for her late grandfather. In “Anything Could Disappear,” Evans considers history from a different perspective, as Vera mostly refuses to acknowledge the past at all.
The past is a central concern in the titular novella, in which Cassie, a former history professor, is tasked with correcting any visible textual errors. At first, this seems to be a commentary on contemporary discourse, as Cassie corrects a description of a cake in a D.C. bakery (the description itself could launch another story). Soon enough, Cassie is far from the expensive bakery, mining the history of a Wisconsin family, determining that a woman vanished by passing as a different race.
Evans pays close attention to the power of appearance — not only the visibility of race, but also glittery notions of femininity, the princess-themed birthdays and “hot-pink” bachelorette party games. “People can convince themselves of anything if they want badly enough to believe it,” Cassie tells a friend. In Evans’ stories, the most intriguing moments are the fissures in these willfully built narratives.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in Electric Literature, LennyLetter, Narrative, the Millions, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
The Office of Historical Corrections
By: Danielle Evans.
Publisher: Riverhead, 265 pages, $27.