Journal of Writing & Environment

Book Review (Short Stories): “Best American Short Stories 2003” edited by Walter Mosley

Review by Tegan Swanson, Flyway Staff

With hundreds of short stories published every year, the ever-expanding number of worlds contained in 8,000 words can be overwhelming to contemplate.  How does one even choose where to start?  Collections and anthologies make for good filters, providing a smorgasbord of literary styles, voices, and subjects for readers to sample.  Popular volumes from O. Henry, PEN American, and the Best American series are released on an annual basis, each containing a hand-picked selection of some of the most exceptional works of the year.  In The Best American Short Stories 2003, editor Walter Mosley presents a collection which “live(s) with the reader long after the words have been translated into ideas and dreams.”

Having read multiple volumes of the Best American series, I was particularly struck by the depth of talented women writers who were included in this collection.  Two of the twenty stories in 2003 were particularly excellent for their diversity of character and voice, and I think their strengths typify the characterization of memorable tales which Mosley explained in his introduction.  Originally published in Zoetrope and Callaloo respectively, the stories detailed below are worthy of any fiction reader’s attention.

Smart and unflinching in its portrayal of a juvenile detention facility, “Mines,” by Susan Straight, follows a guard identified only as Clarette.  Mother of two young children and aunt to one of the “big roundhead fool” inmates, Clarette struggles to balance the demands of a male-dominated workplace while still caring for her family.  “When I get home now,” Clarette narrates, “I have to stand at the sink and wash my hands and change my mouth.  My spit, everything, I think.”  Straight juxtaposes these environments in short, sparse prose, depicting aspects of both the inmates and her children in descriptions of their hair, their schools, their clothes, and their skin.  Even though the inmates are tattooed with gang signs and tough nicknames which make them seem like dogs in “ a damn kennel”, Clarette can’t shake the instinct to think of the young men instead as the sons of other mothers.  Although the title appears as slang reference to “getting mines” in the dialogue, it manifests thematically as a metaphor of violence.  The mines that Straight places in front of her protagonist arise as unexpected outbursts in the detention center, in being in the “wrong place, wrong time”, and in the tenuous conflicts of a crumbling marriage.  In the end, Clarette remains silent and steady in the wake of a prison fight, still determined to “get hers” despite the challenges of her life.

In Edwidge Danticat’s “Night Talkers,” a young Haitian émigré named Dany returns to his ancestral mountain village in order to reconnect with the aunt who cared for him after his parents were killed.  Themes of identity and language manifest in three main characters, all of whom Danticat calls palannits, a Creole word her own aunt created to describe “people who wet the bed with words.”  These characters represent both the multi-faceted demographics of the Haitian village that they inhabit, and the importance of communication and forgiveness in their community.  “Night Talkers” is ultimately a story about the release of grief and the power of compassion, both of which are depicted through the act of verbal expression.  Whether speaking aloud during a dream, giving words of comfort, or telling a story too long untold, Danticat’s characters reveal the importance of human communication.  Although their identities in Beau Jour are very different, the maternal aunt, a forgiven criminal and the estranged nephew are all intimately connected by the relationships they form while learning to “speak [their] nightmares to others, in the daytime, even when the moon had completely vanished and the sun had come out.”

Even for a superlative anthology, the authors showcased in the 2003 edition are intimidating in their accomplishment.  Included here are also stories about a blind malacologist (Anthony Doerr), the congregation of a Baptist church (ZZ Packer), kidnappers on the lamb (E.L. Doctorow), a New York City couple (Nicole Krauss), and a withered Ojibwa who plays the violin (Louise Erdrich).  As Mosley writes in his introduction, “A good short story crosses the borders of our nations and our prejudices and our beliefs,” and almost ten years after their original publication, these stories are still worthy of such acclaim.