Reviewed by Aaron Klink
University of Nebraska Press, 2014, 216 pp.
Finalist for the 27th Annual Minnesota Book Awards, in the Novel & Short Story category.
With prose as honest in its portrayal of joy and hope as it is in its portrayal of sorrow and desperation, the stories in Pamela Carter Joern’s collection, In Reach, offer a beautiful and often heartrending glimpse into the longings, fears, accomplishments, and tragedies of ordinary people. The stories also poignantly explore the opportunities and constraints that influence how lives unfold over time.
According to literary critic Wayne Booth, good narratives form our moral imaginations, even if we ourselves have not been in the situations that the characters in the stories encounter. Readers of this collection will find themselves thinking about their own dreams, conflicts, and struggles as they richly relate to the lives narrated in these stories. I am sure that others readers will find, as I did, that these characters mirror feelings in our own hearts.
Joern’s characters live and love in silence, or in protest, or with a quiet grace, dealing with the situations life throws at them in both tragic and comic ways. The author drew from her own experiences in small-town Nebraska to create the fictional town of Reach. With her ready insights into the challenges of small-town life, Joern makes the community’s fierce and rugged beauty come alive. The book’s stories touch on what seem to be universal hungers, fears, and hopes of the human heart—drives that will resonate with readers in urban coastal centers as much as they resonate with readers in Midwestern towns. Great writing says something both particular and universal. Joern vividly portrays the idiosyncrasies of life in a small Nebraska town, while also tackling themes—such as navigating troubled relationships, growing old, learning to love, and dealing with sexuality—that are common to readers no matter where they are located. Joern’s genius is her ability to weave together the particular and the universal.
This review cannot do justice to the breadth and complexity of the stories. What I found most impressive about this collection was the range of subjects the author covered with both honesty and insight. In Reach does not have just one central theme; instead, it gracefully narrates various conflicts and powerfully explores various forms of brokenness. The opening story, “Running in Place,” describes the confrontation between a gay man who “came out” before returning to his small town to die, and his cousin who was “in the closet” and had remained in the small town throughout his life. The consequences of both men’s choices showcase the costs of keeping within community standards, on one hand, or leaving home in the name of freedom, on the other. In the middle of the collection Joern gives us a story called, “Don’t Call Me Kid,” which tells of a father who takes his son out for a buffalo hunt. What the son understands (but the father does not) is that the hunt is staged by tricksters. “Don’t Call Me Kid” explores the ways children try to please their parents, and the ways their lives are shaped by their parents’ failings and illusions. A story near the end of the collection, “Solitary Confinements,” looks at a man’s return to his aging parents. The man desires to place his mother in a nursing home, while his father insists that it is better for her to be home. For the father, home, even if it is imperfect and unpredictable, is better than somewhere foreign and strange, even if it is safe and controlled.
Joern’s trip through the town of Reach is really, in the end, a tour of the human heart—in all of its blessedness, wickedness, ambiguity, and sorrow. We laugh, weep, and struggle with her characters because we laugh, weep, and struggle with our own lives. Joern is a seasoned tour guide. As she tells her stories, she lets us know that she understands our broken, beautiful, humanity. For that we should give her thanks.
* Pamela participated in the summer 2014 writing workshop, Apart and Yet a Part, and the summer 2007 writing workshop, Believing in Writing.