(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Relying on her outdoor adventures, Pam Houston has carved out her unique niche as a female author writing about topics normally associated with male writers like Ernest Hemingway or Edward Abbey: exotic landscapes, wanderlust, and struggles against unpredictable natural elements, such as mother grizzlies and deep river currents.

Influenced by D. H. Lawrence and other modernists, Houston’s short stories have an autobiographical flavor to them. They are infused with what the East Bay Express describes as “an embedded irony in that the tough, outdoorsy heroines could navigate dangerous rapids with expertise, but couldn’t quite get a handle on their love lives—especially in relationships with terse men of the west.” Yet, Houston’s female characters know that they are responsible for their own lives, truths, and desires for love.

Houston explores these themes of self-reliance and love by mixing personal experience with metaphor in an attempt to discover the real truth behind not only her wilderness experiences but also her relationships with parents, friends, and lovers. Instead of planning out her narrative before she sits down to write, Houston first tries to write out as much as she can remember about a place first to keep herself from consciously controlling the meaning of the story because, she claims, “When I’m looking the other direction, that’s when the truth emerges.”

Waltzing the Cat

Houston’s second book of short stories, Waltzing the Cat, is a collection of eleven linked stories about the life of Lucy, a photographer, whose adventures with nature and relationships seem to be metaphors for much of Houston’s own life. Leaving the Rockies for Oakland, California, Lucy experiences all kinds of emotional and physical turmoil—hurricanes, rafting accidents, and parents and lovers who are distant and self-obsessed—in what has been described as “a vigorous,...

(The entire section is 800 words.)