Dorie’s story concentrates on the essentials of a child’s experience: schoolteachers and friends; games and rivalries; the fascination of fairy tales--in this case THE ARABIAN NIGHTS’ ENTERTAINMENTS which Hankla uses as a pendant to Dorie’s own storytelling. Like Scheherazade, Dorie finally saves her own life (protects her emerging artist’s consciousness from being overwhelmed by experience) by telling the ordinary and tragic stories of her family’s pleasures and suffering.
There is Dorie’s Daddy, a miner who sacrifices his promotion to the cause of the union; her Mama, long-suffering but compassionate; and, more important than all the other characters in the novel, her brother Willie, who combines altruism and self-indulgence in heroic proportions. His father’s son emotionally, Willie is his opposite ethically and dies a criminal shot by another criminal.
Hankla never quite manages to tell a story strong enough to give all these characters a life larger than Dorie’s memory of them. There are good vignettes, and often the poet in Hankla rises to a challenge that the budding novelist cannot entirely meet. Brother Willie is never quite believable until the novel’s end, when he speaks to the reader in his own prose poem, “Willie’s Blue Horse Notebook.”
At her best, Hankla recalls the poetic nostalgia of James Agee’s A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, an autobiographical novel also set in Appalachia. In her rapturous and often humorous passages of childhood there is something of the poetic prose of Dylan Thomas. The promise is there. Hankla is not yet a novelist, but her skills as a descriptive and poetic narrator are certainly not in question.