Willow Temple: New and Selected Stories by Donald Hall

WillowTemple.JPGI am not really a short story person. I don’t have a lot of experience with the format and, although I have begun to read more short stories, I just don’t find it my preferred form. But I figured I should sample widely so as to try and gauge what is out there. I am not systematic about this by any means, but when I stumble upon the form I no longer immediately pass it by.

I picked up Willow Temple at a local library sale. I had some vague sense of Hall as a famous poet and figured it was hard to go wrong with a hardback at $2. What I found was some skillful writing and story telling, but a rather bleak tone and a focus on adultery and death that left me rather depressed.

PW uses the word “elegiac” which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as: “mourning or expressing sorrow for that which is irrecoverably past.” And this is at the heart of Willow Temple. Hall does a good job of communicating the mix of nostalgia, regret, and sadness that so often comes from thinking about the past later in life when things have become complex and messy; when we realize the past is forever gone. It is often when we are try untangling the knots we have created for ourselves that we trace the arc of our lives to seemingly small or simply events. If we are lucky we put it behind us and find some peace.

It is hard to put my finger on it, but I came away with a sense that it was just too much of one thing. Matthew Flamm in his NYT review gets at this feeling:

They’re pretty unforgiving in general, these stories. Hall relishes the chance to have his characters face the hardest facts unprotected. But sometimes you wonder if he doesn’t enjoy it too much — if he doesn’t cast events in the harshest light because, like the Romans he refers to in one story, he believes it a virtue to withstand pain.

I can understand this stoic outlook – my Christian faith can easily slip into stoicism if I am not careful – but the stories just wore me down over time. There is a cold beauty here, and Hall the poet is skilled with language and description, I just wasn’t able to enjoy it as a whole. As a friend likes to say, you mileage may vary.

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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