The stories in this collection were picked from among thousands reviewed by guest editor Louise Erdrich. Although she did not know the author or source of each story as she read it, eight of the twenty stories come from THE NEW YORKER, with two more each from ANTAEUS and HARPER’S MAGAZINE. Most are by established authors.
Each of the stories is of high literary quality, offering deep meaning in a few words. The stories approach their subjects differently, with entries from THE NEW YORKER tending to circle around their topics through reminiscence and flashback, often leaving the reader to decide the message. Harlan Ellison’s is perhaps the most telling of the enlightening contributors’ notes at the end of the volume. He notes that there is no deep mystery to writing, that anyone can do it, and that stories do not necessarily have deep meaning underlying them. Although, as he states, his “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” could be read as a treatise on the meaning of existence, with each disconnected action by the protagonist separately interpreted, the story is nothing more than a description of the activities of an inept civil servant. That’s it. Fate is random, with people responsible for creating their own lives from what fate offers. Notably, Ellison’s is the only science fiction story in the collection.
The remaining stories span time and location, though most are reasonably contemporary and take place in the United States. Characterization rather than plot drives most, with readers quickly made to care about the sometimes mundane activities of characters. The stories remind the reader that turning points do occur in people’s lives and that, looking back, someone can often see patterns in his or her existence. Erdrich cannot be faulted for any of her selections. Each is worth reading slowly, more than once, for enjoyment of how its author has re-created a small part of a life’s experience.