A tragic story beautifully rendered by an author known far and wide to consistently pay attention to painstaking detail. In Ash Wednesday, Author Paula McClain depicts a harrowing moment in American history by penning a fictional account of a fire in an improperly designed school building, in as industrial area of Cleveland, Ohio, on the outskirts of downtown.
It is Ash Wednesday, 1908-, and forty-six-year-old Swiss immigrant, Fritz Hirter, is the janitor of Collinwood’s community School. It is winter, and Fritz, the father of five and married to Eva, takes pride in his supportive role, in a community that seems to give short shrift to its immigrant population. Well aware of corners cut during the school’s recent expansion, Fritz is vigilant in his task of keeping the building properly heated, in the face of the school’s structural vulnerability. It is dangerous work, tending to the basement’s boiler system, and Fritz’s heart is in every gesture of maintaining the building where his young children are being educated.
In this tightly woven, present tense short story, McClain gives minute-to-minute details of a spontaneous event spinning out of control and ending in community tragedy. Questions of responsibility, blame, and community shame are at issue in this seemingly personal story, in view of its central character.
Ash Wednesday is Paula McClain at her reliable best and is an installment in her A Point in Time, a transporting collection of short stories about pivotal moments, past and present, that change lives. It’s a riveting, compelling story with a troubling aftershock made important by the fact that McClain has expertly brought it to light. Paula McLain
Note: Ash Wednesday is available on Amazon as an E-Book!
Paula McClain received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan in 1996.
McLain’s essays have appeared in Town & Country, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, O the Oprah Magazine, Huffington Post, The Guardian, the New York Times and elsewhere. She is also the author of the memoir, Like Family: Growing up in Other People’s Houses, two collections of poetry, the debut novel, A Ticket to Ride, Circling the Sun, The Paris Wife, and When the Stars Go Dark. She lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio.
“At times uproariously funny, uncannily accurate, and glaringly insightful, David Butler’s Fugitive is a collective exposé on human nature delivered in entertaining snippets with such clever finesse it will reaffirm your enjoyment of the art of the short story.”
Award-winning novelist, poet, short story writer, and playwright David Butler’s second collection of short stories, Fugitive, is a delightful assembly of character-driven stories that, when pieced together, give the reader great insight into modern-day Ireland, while simultaneously depicting universal themes. These are swaggering, anecdotal stories, everyday slices of life made significant, visual as staged plays rollicking in pitch-perfect Irish vernacular, each with a pithy conclusion like a moral to the story.
The 21 short stories that make up Fugitive are primarily short in length and deeply human. Butler’s talent is the ability to set the stage in medias res, dropping the reader into the story with an immediate sense of familiarity. His narrative is direct and conversational, as in the case of the wildly surprising, hitch-hiking story gone wrong as two youths traverse the country. The story, “Taylor Keith,” opens with, “The mist rolling off the mountain was threatening rain, otherwise we’d never have taken that lift.” The journey from Dublin to Galway with a dubious stranger becomes a nerve-wracking misadventure when one odd shock follows another, until the narrator concludes of his driver, “By Jaysus, he was some cute hoor all the same.”
In “The Lie,” Butler posits the dilemma of Jack as he weighs the question of loyalty to a deceased friend named Ronnie to whom he’d served as best man at his wedding. Beside the casket, Ronnie’s widow asks him what really happened on that stag night long ago, remarking that ever after, Ronnie significantly changed until his life ended in suicide. Jack guards the hidden facts: “Ronnie’d had what they term ‘history.’ But what autopsy can disclose a state of mind?”
In “The Tailor’s Shears,”Butler weaves two subjects:the plight of a divorced woman past childbearing years and the frustrating unpredictability of the publishing world. After seven years of marriage, Emily Brooks wonders what to do with her life. “Spinster is a cruel word. A male word. As she examined the fissured puffiness about those eyes with a detachment that surprised her, Emily decided she would not endure the humiliation of placing herself back on the market. On the reduced to clear shelf.” When chance presents Emily with a local writing group, “It was as if a light had come on inside her head,” and the reader is taken through 25 erratic years of Emily pursuing the publication of her short story collection, in a one step forward, two steps back manner that renders the superb ending comical.
The spot-on use of Irish colloquialism throughout Fugitive animateseach lively story. In “First Time,” the teammate of a deceased 16 year old meets his dead friend’s mother at the funeral and, after volunteering to help her around the yard, an improper relationship develops to dangerous proportions. The narrator says of himself, “OK, I can be a bit of a headbanger on the rugby pitch, but I’ve never been any use with the girls,” and “I’d never so much as snogged a girl.” After the illicit affair is discovered, the young man wonders, “I would love to know who dobbed us in. One of the neighbors, was it? Can you not?”
Tipping its hat to the sign of the times, the witty “Distancing”portrays the unintended consequences of social distancing when the anxious Emily calls her neighbor, in that short window of time while her husband walks the dog, to ask that her skimpily clad, 18-year-old Brazilian au pair be kept from her husband’s line of view. Nervous at being caught out by her husband, upon his return, Emily composes a smile, “the smile that, ever since the lockdown started, seemed only to put Frankie on edge.”
At times uproariously funny, uncannily accurate, and glaringly insightful, David Butler’s Fugitive is a collective exposé on human nature delivered in entertaining snippets with such clever finesse it will reaffirm your enjoyment of the art of the short story.
Claire Fullerton’s most recent novels are Little Tea and multiple award winner, Mourning Dove. Honors include the Independent Book Publishers Book Award Silver Medal for Regional Fiction, the Reader’s Favorite for Southern Fiction Bronze Medal and various other literary awards.
David Butler is a multi-award winning novelist, poet, short-story writer and playwright. The most recent of his three published novels, City of Dis (New Island) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, 2015. His poetry collections All the Barbaric Glass (2017) and Liffey Sequence (2021) are published by, and available from, Doire Press. His 11 poem cycle ‘Blackrock Sequence’, a Per Cent Literary Arts Commission illustrated by his brother Jim, won the World Illustrators Award 2018 (books, professional section). Arlen House is to bring out his second short story collection, Fugitive, in 2021. Literary prizes include the Maria Edgeworth (twice), ITT/Red Line and Fish International Award for the short story; the Scottish Community Drama, Cork Arts Theatre and British Theatre Challenge awards; and the Féile Filíochta, Ted McNulty, Brendan Kennelly and Poetry Ireland/Trocaire awards for poetry. His radio play ‘Vigil’ was shortlisted for a ZeBBie 2018. David tutors regularly at the Irish Writers Centre.
It’s daunting to think that no matter how I review this exceptional collection of short stories by Billy O’Callaghan, I will never adequately express my full sentiments, for how to articulate that O’Callaghan is simply the best writer I’ve come across in ages? His short stories are a treatise on the human experience, the impressionable psyche, the vulnerable human heart. He crafts his stories with the fluidity of a wave that builds slowly, crests, then turns in on itself after enveloping sight and sight unseen. To read The Boatman and Other Stories is to read a master at his craft. You’ll be swept away by the rich detail and nuance of commonplace in the hands of this powerful storyteller. I cannot recommend this collection hardily enough. Read it, treasure it, then do as I did and put it in pride of place on your bookshelf.
Billy O’Callaghan was born in Cork in 1974, and is the author of three short story collections: In Exile (2008, Mercier Press), In Too Deep (2009, Mercier Press), and The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind (2013, New Island Books, winner of a 2013 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award and selected as Cork’s One City, One Book for 2017), as well as the bestselling novel The Dead House (2017, Brandon/O’Brien Press and 2018, Arcade/Skyhorse (USA)).
His latest novel, My Coney Island Baby, was published by Jonathan Cape (and Harper in the U.S.) in January 2019 to much acclaim. Read more about it on the Books page.
Billy’s latest short story collection, The Boatman and Other Stories was released in January 2020 and released in the U.S. on April 28.
Billy is the winner of a Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award for the short story, and twice a recipient of the Arts Council of Ireland’s Bursary Award for Literature. Among numerous other honors, his story, The Boatman, was a finalist for the 2016 Costa Short Story Award, and more than a hundred of his stories have appeared or are forthcoming in literary journals and magazines around the world, including Absinthe: New European Writing, Agni, the Bellevue Literary Review, the Chattahoochee Review, Confrontation, The Fiddlehead, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Kenyon Review, the Kyoto Journal, the London Magazine, the Los Angeles Review, Narrative, Ploughshares, Salamander, and the Saturday Evening Post.
I read O’Callaghans short story, A Death in the Family, which is included in The Boatman and Other Stories when the prestigious Ploughshares published it as a Kindle solo, here https://amzn.to/2xnqma2
I reviewed A Death in the Family by writing:
It is such a gift that Ploughshares avails this short story here on Amazon. I cannot recommend this story enough, for I consider Billy O’Callaghan the most important literary figure to arrive on the scene in ages. O’Callaghan can take any simple premise and infuse it with deep-seated, soul-stirring insight, and A Death in the Family is just such an example. His use of language is so personal that it shows us our own humanity, in this evocative, finely wrought story. Read this story and be lulled by O’Callaghan’s laser-sharp gift of Irish nuance, character, and place. And when you’ve finished, do yourself a favor and read his debut novel, The Dead House.
Here is my favorite quote on O’Callaghan’s writing:
“I know of no writer on either side of the Atlantic who is better at exploring the human spirit under assault than Billy O’Callaghan.”—Robert Olen Butler
At the heart of every well-beloved novel is that one riveting scene that verges on transcendence and stays in the reader’s memory as the very soul of the book. Gather at the River is a collection of those resonant moments, one right after another, and there’s not a weak story in the assembly. I use the word story, instead of essay, on purpose. These are first person accounts rife with insider’s knowledge in the hands of those that know nuance and how to describe it down to the last rock in the river. These writers know what from the woods as they recount their individual fishing stories and gift the reader with their own version of universal nostalgia. They work the depths of the seemingly simple themes of family connections, childhood innocence, and pivotal moments all within a bucolic setting that expands the visceral margins of character as place. You can see, hear, and feel the mood of every setting, and though fishing is the common premise, the central experience in each is so much more. There’s such art in the craft of a briefly told story. The sure sign of success is when the reader, in this case, yours truly, is so moved by the reading experience that they wish for more.
Southern Legitimacy Statement:
Claire Fullerton hails from Memphis and has the accent to prove it. She loves Al Green, Big Star, Dixie Carter, and is the biggest fan of Beale Street’s radio station, WEGR Rock-103, and its infamous DJ, Kelly Cruise.
The thing about being a Southern girl is they let you run loose until it comes time to shape you. My first decade on earth was spent idyllically, running the cotton fields on my family’s farm in Como, Mississippi with my brother Hayward, his dog, Rufus, and the groundskeeper’s daughter, my best friend, Little Tea. I was ten years old when I learned fate can take your world and shake it. Fate shook me on a mid-summer morning, when my father walked out to the verandah to say my mother was looking for me.
I ran up the red brick steps, through the screen door, and entered the cool catacomb of the six pillar Georgian’s hip-roofed foyer.
My hand trailed the banister as I climbed the stairs to the second-floor landing where the bay window’s draperies blocked out the July sun. Peering into the sitting room, I called for my mother, thinking she might be in the adjoining bedroom. “I’m up here,” her voice descended. “Celia, come up. I want to see you.” I clattered the stairs to the floor above and found her in the alcove between Hayward’s room and mine. Behind her, sunlight filtered through the organza window treatment, highlighting the red in her hair. Her slender hands held a three-ring binder of fabric swatches, the one on top a cool, blue Toile. She patted the sofa beside her, and I lighted softly. Always, in my mother’s presence, I gentled myself to her calm self-possession.
“Tell me,” she said, “what do you think of this fabric for your draperies? We could paint your walls a robin’s egg blue and put white on the molding. I think it’d be divine. It’s time we got rid of the wallpaper in there.” She touched my cheek with her ivory hand. “You’re growing up, you’ll want this eventually. I think now’s a good time.”
“Why is now a good time?” I knew enough of my mother’s ways to know she was engaged in preamble. She was practiced at the art of delivery by discreet maneuver, and I suspected her impulse to transform my room had hidden meaning.
“Celia, I’m telling you before I tell Hayward. I don’t want this to come from him.” Her blue eyes softened. “Your father’s going to be taking a job in Memphis, so we’ll be moving. You’ll start school at Hutchison in September. It’s the girl’s school I went to, and it’s highly rated academically.” I must have winced at this information, for my mother took my hands in hers as if trying another tactic. “You’ll love Hutchison,” she continued, her voice singing with encouragement. “We can come back here any weekend you want, and you’ll have a brand-new room when we do. You’ll make new friends in Memphis, and Little Tea will still be here at the farm. It won’t be a drastic change at all, try to think of it as an addition. There now, sweetie, don’t make that face. It isn’t the end of the world.”
But it was for me because Memphis intimidated me. It was the big city compared to Como, and I found it cacophonous and unpredictable in its patchwork design. There was a disjointed, disharmonious feel to the city because of its delineated racial relations. Parts of town were autocratic in their mainstay of Caucasian imperiousness, and there were dilapidated, unlucky parts of town, which a white person never chanced. This much I’d learned on my visits to my grandparents’ house near the lake in Central Gardens. Unlike Little Tea and me, blacks and whites never comingled in Memphis, though they did coexist. But there was an impenetrable wall that separated the races, and I’d been raised in a footloose environment where it didn’t matter as much. I took my teary eyes and sinking stomach to my bedroom so my mother wouldn’t see me cry. Looking through the window over the driveway, I saw Hayward and Little Tea throwing a stick for Rufus. I hadn’t the heart to run tell them our lives were about to change.
I never believed my father followed his true calling in life, for his was a nature artistic in temperament. In looking at John Tallinghast Wakefield, you wouldn’t have thought he was a farmer. Were you to have passed him on the street, a poet or painter would have been your first guess. He had the look of a spring fawn in his sable eyes, and wore his long hair renaissance style. There’s no way to describe the man everyone called J.T., other than to say he was a beautiful man. He should have been born a Knight of the Order, or a bard to a Tudor king, instead of being born in 1950’s Como, Mississippi, into the empire of his father, Big John.
Big John was a man used to giving orders, and equally as used to people falling in line. He ran the Wakefield Plantation through fear: his domineering manner uncompromising, his robust stature intimidating. That my father was Big John’s only child sealed his destiny. He’d inherited a life, instead of forging his own. My father looked like an artist because he was one. He spoke like a poet because he was in love with language. The built-in shelves in his library housed leather bound volumes by Shakespeare and Rilke, Pushkin and Goethe. It was a gentleman’s den, a scholar’s library, and I knew my father wrote poetry at his leather top desk, though he rarely shared it. It’s understandable why my father was prone to depression: he had an artistic edge he couldn’t reconcile with the world. His were abysmal, grey-clouded days, strung in voids my mother called low tides. Though he was harmless during these episodes, it was during one of his dark nights of the soul that Thelonious, our groundskeeper, saved his life.
There was an outbuilding on the plantation’s grounds, which was not much more than a glorified shed, near the edge of the pond. In back was deep shelving, where my father kept turpentine, easels, and paints. He’d be struck with inspiration at the oddest of times, and on this particular night, he’d been drinking. None of us knew where he was that night, or at least I thought this was the case, when I woke to mayhem at two in the morning. Three fire engines roared onto our property, tearing up the terrain on their way to the shed. Through my north facing window, I saw winter grass violently aflame and heard a series of explosions like rounds of staccato gunfire. Terrified, I ran straight to my parents’ bedroom, waking my mother as I screamed, “Fire, looks like it’s down by the pond.” She rushed to the window then threw a coat over her nightgown. Flying down the front stairs, she rounded to my father’s den, with me at her frantic heels. Finding his door open, she let out a panicked, “Oh God, no,” then we made for the front door. It was an evil, erratic torrent when we got there; a shrieking, demonic inferno that up-lit the woods. I couldn’t hear what my mother was shouting over the deafening fire engines as she angled between two medics, one strapping an oxygen mask to my father’s face. I was wet to the bone in a matter of seconds as water surged skyward through hoses the length of a football field. Bad as it was, it was worse to consider what it might yet become, should the February wind turn against us. After Thelonious found him unconscious on the shed’s floor, my father was taken to the hospital in Senatobia and kept two days for observation. As Thelonious explained later, it was the result of a combined list of variables that would have been innocuous on their own: Single Malt Scotch; a blustery evening; a Cuban cigar; and no forethought of risk.
It wasn’t often that my grandfather made an appearance at the plantation. He was in his eighties now and fully ensconced in his life in Memphis, forty-five miles away. After relinquishing operations of the farm to my father, he’d taken to wearing a bow tie to lunch at the Memphis Country Club, while my father tended to the farm’s logistics, which is what Big John was really mad about, when my mother called to report there’d been a fire. In Big John’s mind, there was no more egregious error than shirking responsibility, and he didn’t have to be told my father had been on a bender. I was at the pond looking over the wreckage, when Big John’s driver came whisking him up the gravel in his silver Bentley. He intended to inspect the grounds for himself, but needed a drink to do it. By the time I made it to the house, Big John was seated in the living room, holding a tumbler of Dewar’s straight up. My mother sat across from him with her spine rigid, as if braced for certain admonishment. She seemed relieved when I entered the room. Whatever words Big John might have said in my absence, he withheld in my presence, though the look on his thunderous face spoke volumes.
“Tell me again what time this was,” Big John demanded, stretching his arm out for me to sit near.
“It was early morning,” my mother answered, in a tone suggesting she’d said so before.
“No, no, Shirley,” Big John interrupted. “You said it was night. Nothing good ever comes of night wandering. A man has to be of a certain mind to think it does, which is why I need the facts. Let me hear a little something about his fool thinking. And before you lie for him, I know he was drinking. That boy never could hold his liquor.”
“I don’t know, Big John,” my mother said. “He didn’t tell me what he was thinking. I only talked to him at the hospital and didn’t think it was the time to ask. Poor thing’s ashamed as it is. You can ask him yourself when we go later, but please, do try to be gentle with him.”
“Gentle?” Big John boomed. “Boy all but burns down my farm, and you want me to be gentle? I don’t think so. Gonna give him a good what for is what I’ll do. Where’s Thelonious? I can depend on him.”
“I just saw Thelonious at his house,” I said. “I’ll run get him, if you want.”
“Be easier to call him and tell him to meet me out there in twenty. Give me a minute to finish my drink.”
When I called from the hall phone, Thelonious answered on the first ring. “How bad is it?” he asked, his tone more a conclusion than a question.
“Bad, with the promise of getting worse,” I said.
“Don’t worry, I got it all worked out. I’ll say your father was hit on the head with something, make it seem more of an accident than what it really was.”
“Get your story together, Thelonious,” I said. “Big John’s going to be out there in twenty.”
Thelonious had played it much as I predicted. Hearing him recap the events made my father’s actions seem reasonable. “You know how it is that J.T.’s a painter,” he said. “He don’t like taking time away from his family, nor the work he do round here, so he likely got it in his head to paint at night, when folks is asleep. And that shed ain’t been seen to in ages. Ain’t no light in there either. Must have been why he took that cigar.”
“Well, for God’s sake, don’t tell J.T.’s mother that,” Big John warned. “Her father died of throat cancer from smoking those things. I told her no point in coming out here today, said it was nothing more than a little brush fire, so let’s keep it that way.” Big John pushed his wispy white hair from his creased forehead. The shed had burned to the ground, and he walked over the charred remains like a detective looking over a crime scene. Presently, he put his hands in his coat pockets and turned towards the woods behind Thelonious’ cabin, his appraising eyes surveying the long stretch of land. “Y’all might not have considered the real danger in all this. Had that fire spread and gone into the woods, there’d have been no putting it out. I’m not looking at what happened, I’m looking at the jeopardy he put us in.”
“But nothing bad happened, Big John,” I said. “What’s important is nothing terrible happened to Daddy.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Celia, and you need to learn something here. It’s not what a man does with his full potential, it’s how he handles his worst.”
My father came home from the hospital the next day, shamefaced and bandaged and sullen. He went straight to his den and closed the door, and didn’t come out for a week.
Five rings and Kakki finally answered her cellphone. I could just picture her springing to action, reaching into the back pocket of her jeans, expecting an emergency on the line as she stood in the barn of her horse ranch in Olive Branch, Mississippi. Kakki leads her life on call; she’s always ready for something.
“Hey,” I said, “you busy?”
“Never too busy for you,” she said. I could hear voices in the background, a gate latching, something metal jangling.
It’s a two hour time difference between California and Mississippi. It was just after eleven Kakki’s time, which is all but the middle of her day. “We have to talk about Ava,” I said. “What is this, she wants to move back to Memphis? Can you talk now, or do you want to call me back?”
I’ve had more friendships than I care to list come and go over the years. People I thought would be in my life forever fell by the wayside for one reason or another, some leaving me baffled and bruised, and second guessing, but Kakki Thornton and Ava Cameron have remained beside me. The progression of years and disparate locations hasn’t altered our bond one iota. We became friends when we were fifteen, and now that we’re in our mid-forties, each of us knows we’re in it for life. Our dogged loyalty to each other is partially based on longevity; we’ve invested too much time in each other to turn back now. We overlook the fact that we’re as different as night and day in what our lives have become, but we began at the same starting point.