The Alice Stories by Jesse Lee Kercheval

I have long held that certain geographic connects trump more politically correct or emphasized designations.  For example, I hold that being a Midwesterner from a small to medium sized town or suburb compared to someone from an urban center on either coast is a much bigger cultural hrudle than race.

When I lived in the Washington, DC area – Hyattsville, Maryland to be exact – it was an almost overwhelmingly African-American community; the mailman called us “the white couple.”  One of our neighbors was from Wisconsin and we hit it off right away.  Having both grown up in the Midwest or North (Michigan for me and Minnesota for my wife) we could instantly relate to and communicate about her childhood.

In contrast her own husband was from inner city DC and it wasn’t quite as easy to connect.  In fact, she shared with us that there were significant cultural barriers that she had to adjust to in her relationship with him and his family.  We enjoyed his company but there is a divide between inner city or urban folks and rural/suburban Midwesterners.

The reason for all this sociological musing is that Wisconsin is the setting for Jesse Lee Kercheval’s collection of linked stories The Alice Stories (Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction) and it made me think back to these ideas and experiences.

Set largely in Wisconsin, and featuring a central character from Florida who finds herself settling down there, it had a tone or sense that I could relate to.  Not that I don’t enjoy some of it, but it seems much contemporary literary fiction takes place in a setting outside of my day to day life.  Reading stories that hit closer to home makes for interesting reading and a nice change of pace.

A more in-depth discussion follows after the jump.

Allow me to set up this discussion with the publishers description:

Wisconsin is not where Alice, a girl raised in Florida, meant to end up. But when she falls in love with Anders Dahl, a descendant of Norwegian farmers born for generations in the same stone farmhouse, she realizes that to love Anders is to settle into a life in Wisconsin in the small house they buy before their daughter, Maude, is born. Together, Alice and Anders move forward into a life of family, friends, and the occasional troubled student until they face their biggest challenge. Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, Jesse Lee Kercheval’s The Alice Stories tells the tale of a family: the pain of loss and the importance of the love of friends in the midst of turmoil. As timely as the news yet informed by rich humor and a deep understanding of human character, the interlinked Alice Stories form a luminous tale of family life.

Now here is a negative review from Publishers Weekly:

Kercheval focuses on the touchstone events of protagonist Alice’s life in this uneven collection of linked stories, but maintains throughout an emotional distance that is vaguely unsatisfying. The tales are marked heavily by death: Alice’s alcoholic mother dies in the introductory ‘Alice in Dairyland’; in ‘Honors,’ Alice and her brother Mark (whose partner has recently died of AIDS complications) bury the father who deserted them years ago; and Alice goes on to have a miscarriage and watch as two loved ones get cancer diagnoses. The book’s high body count starts to feel like a crutch to lend meaning to the stories, while actual character development often relies on cliché; the central relationship, Alice’s marriage to Anders, remains something of an enigma, and other characters are too perfect. The depictions of these events fail to take on the ‘universal’ quality necessary to make them resonate.

I have to say I was taken back by this review.  It seems harshly negative.  First, the body count issue is silly.  We are talking about stories across a number of years.  Does the PW reviewer think that no one loses their parents, has miscarriages, or friends with cancer as they get older?  I have lost my step-mother, a number of aunts and uncles; have a number of friends battling cancer; and and a close friend who has dealt with miscarriages.  My own daughter nearly died at birth.  This is not a body count, but life.

And this relates to the comment about emotional distance.  I didn’t find Alice emotionally distant at all.  She is full of doubt and sorrow and wonder.  She certainly isn’t flamboyant or over-the-top but seems normal in her emotional range.  She is insecure and unsure at times but comes to realize the wonderful people in her life and the importance of loving them. This is the arc of the collection – the importance of relationships and the often fleeting nature of life.

Alice’s relationships with her parents – or lake thereof – sets the scene for her attempts to settle in Wisconsin and make a life with Anders.  It is about the rootlessness that can be a damaging part of modern life and how certain people – Anders for example – insist on staying rooted to place and family.  Alice moves from a disconnected life in Florida with a father who runs away from his family because of an alcoholic wife to building a home in Wisconsin and re-connecting with her brother.

And I am not an expert on short stories, but I don’t think the character development involved is usually is quite the same as in a traditional novel.  As the above should make clear, I found Alice to be a interesting character and felt that Kercheval captured her personality and her emotions quite well.  Anders is an enigma in many ways, and Alice admits this to herself.  But in the end she loves him because he loves her and because he is kind and gentle; he has a basic goodness that gives her an anchor in life.  Alice is the only real developed character in each story, but that is the nature of such stories.

I am not often a big fan of book blurbs, but I think one of the book’s back cover blurbs actually captures it pretty well”

By turns hilarious and devastating, The Alice Stories form a tender and poetic chronicle of one womans journey through time, love, motherhood, and Wisconsin. It is a marvelous example of how connected stories can, even more effectively than a novel, evoke a life in all its ranging, episodic, and emotional complexity.

-Anthony Doerr, author of the novel About Grace

It is arguable whether something has to be “universal” in order to resonate, but if life and death; family and relationships; community and generational connections; and love and loss aren’t universal I am not sure what are.  Kercheval touches on all of these themes in interesting ways but without any sense of preaching or mere politics.  That is no easy task.  And if the above can appeal to me it means it resonates beyond just those in exact circumstances.

Donna Seaman at Booklist – in a skill I am very jealous of – manages to sum it up in one sentence:

Over the course of 10 beautifully shaped, deeply moving, funny, and utterly surprising linked stories, Kercheval, in prose as sparkling as snow in sunlight, considers how quickly things can stop making sense and how sustaining goodness truly is.

What a great phrase, “how sustaining goodness truly is,” and it describes the book perfectly.

I always seem to enjoy fiction from The University of Nebraska Press:

– Brock Clarke’s Carrying the Torch (which like this work won The Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction)

The Floor of the Sky by Pamela Carter Joern and Tin God by Terese Svoboda both in the Flyover Fiction series.

I have enjoyed all of these books for their literary qualities and appreciate their unique sensibilities.

Add The Alice Stories to the list. It is well crafted, enjoyable storytelling that addresses thought provoking themes and serves as an often poignant reminder of the sometimes tragic, often fleeting, but still joyful nature of life.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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