An elderly widow struggles to open herself up to her granddaughter regarding her Civil War-era flight with an artist-turned-Confederate. A bout of accidental shooting between a mother and her daughter’s best friend not only sends the latter to the ICU, but also the mother’s son into a grudge-fueled adolescence immersed in “weapons of war and video combat games” that clash with his former sweet nature. And contrast — particularly between material comforts and spiritual transcendence — is what lends color to Babette Fraser Hale’s short story collection A Wall of Bright Dead Feathers.
The book’s twelve stories of overcoming one’s past are framed by feelings of being the human equivalent of the scorched Central Texan earth, “under the bell jar of [a] drouth” both in vegetation and population. Reflected within that frame are folks from all walks of life and corners of America who travel “the familiar bleakness of [one’s] own interior landscape” to let go of “the reasons why people behave as they do, and why it is so often contrary to what is good for them.”
But the distance between the stories’ characters and the hustle and bustle stops at the physical sense, with material desires keeping them mentally tied to the modern world. In “Drouth,” the writerly Cam — under the care of his girlfriend in the Texan boonies — struggles to break away from his brother’s death and the bout of writer’s block it engendered, worsened by medication that “[turns] him into a fingering chimp batting at the keyboard” and by the expectations of artistic acclaim Cam’s loved ones bear for him. Even those seeking simpler living harbor a desire for material conveniences that wrestle with spiritual attainment, as evidenced by Houston transplant Alys in “Silences” who tries to bond with nature via gardening while at the same time clinging to human connection via her son and husband, bearing chagrin at living in a “place too small for the competing egos of her [relatives].”
In this tug of war between cushioning oneself against harsh circumstances and confronting the fact that “nothing remains the same [or abides]” in life, the strain of keeping it together — i.e. keeping material comforts close to oneself — takes its toll not just on the characters, but also on those they hinge their self-worth upon. In “Flight,” Tasha tries to cling to the companionship of her father following the loss of her newspaper job and her divorce from a Trump supporter. But her dad’s failing health widens the distance between him and Tasha, revealing “that the net of family support Tasha relied on was more like the woven fibers of a sweater where one broken strand frees another and another, so that she is left grabbing at whatever’s closest, which gives way, too, until every thread releases.” The tales thus underline the through line of letting go, of allowing nature to take its course and oneself to take the path to self-actualization.
Some — through (self-)confrontation — transcend their existential limbos, like Tillman moving into a barn with his paintings following the death of his wife in “Motes,” consequently overcoming his fear of barns that stemmed from the death of his daughter at the hands of a storm-propelled barn gate. But others still succumb to the desire for external validation and material conveniences, especially when under social pressure. As seen with Lavis’s yielding to her oil man dad’s offer of dirty money in the title story, the leads’ relatives and friends can bear their own thoughts about the main characters and what they need, or what they need from the leads. Through the collection’s balance of triumph and defeat that shows how one shouldn’t take things for granted in life, Hale calls to attention the human struggle between stubborn rigidity and courageous self-reformation in the face of painful but unburdening trials, like “[trying] to preserve the moment [when] we can’t make it live again.”
Yet this suggestion of life’s fleetingness also has the tales briskly reach their resolutions. Between Hattie going from relaxing near a creek to confronting a rowdy couple two pages later in “Fireflies,” and Tasha’s story ending with her stubbornly waiting for her dad to come back home despite his running off, the abridged narrative threads can make the stories feel like vignettes rather than full-fledged portraits of the characters’ mindscapes. This seems to drive home the idea that folks can be prone to “never [finishing] any of [their personal] projects,” to “never [seeing] the end of something when [stuck] in the middle of it.”
But this abridged nature could be Hale’s way of reflecting the insecurities — the mental shutdowns and cherry-picking of memories — of her characters in a land whose barrenness leaves folks alone with their thoughts, as seen with the terse description of the narrator’s reaction to abandoned pet dogs being mercy-killed by animal control in “Intruders.” The open-endedness of the resolutions leaves readers to interpret if, when, and how the characters will turn the next page in their lives once readers turn to the last page of each story.
As unembellished and sublime as the Lone Star boonies, A Wall of Bright Dead Feathers doesn’t beat around the bush in its deep dive into nature — both human and vegetative — far removed from “civilized protections” but closely studied and dissected with solemn prose that opens and treats wounds hidden within the stories’ characters and subtext. Alongside Annie Proulx’s Close Range and Nancy Wayson Dinan’s Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here, Hale’s collection challenges one to venture beyond their (emotional) comfort zone and into America’s great geographic unknowns, full of rugged terrain that mirrors the need for equally rugged individualism in negotiating obstacles beyond and within oneself.
A Wall of Bright Dead Feathers
By Babette Fraser Hale
Published March 5, 2021