Story collections set in small communities can create a world where the collective experience grounds the characters, yet allows their individual voices to be heard. Heather Newton’s McMullen Circle is such a collection. Like Maeve Binchy’s Chestnut Street or the portrayal of the Brighton Beach neighborhood in Grace Paley’s fiction, Newton succeeds in peeling back the layers of a seemingly idyllic community to expose the simmering conflicts between individual characters and the threat of social change.
Newton’s collection of 13 linked stories is centered around The McMullen School, a private boarding school in the mountain community of Tonola Falls in Northern Georgia, and the families of its faculty members and administrators. Lorna Pierce, the daughter of the school headmaster, and Chase Robbins, the son of a math teacher who is having an affair with Lorna’s mother, appear as either principal or minor characters in most of the stories, allowing the reader to witness the conflict in the lives of the adult characters through the eyes of preadolescent children. The stories take place mainly in 1969 and 1970, where, in the isolated and tight-knit school community, burning social issues such as the Vietnam War and racial protest and unrest creep into the lives of its inhabitants. Other characters live on the fringes of the McMullen social space, including Danny, a recovering alcoholic veteran who befriends Chase; Elena, a school cafeteria worker who sees more good in a former student killed in the war than in her own troublesome sons; and Margaret and Evelyn, an older female couple who keep themselves quietly outside the fray and find contentment in the safety of their garden.
The power of Newton’s writing is in how snippets of the lives of characters in one story seamlessly feed into complex and holistic experiences in another. For example, Lorna appears to be the model 10-year-old, always polite and well-mannered, until, in “Things Summoned,” she is revealed to be a troubled, delusional loner. In “The Preferred Embodiment,” Lorna’s father, Richard, an unempathetic administrator and shameless womanizer, fired from his previous job for preying on female students, is transformed into a broken man who fears embarrassing his children the way his ne’er-do-well father embarrassed him. Richard’s wife, Sarah, indulges herself in a poorly concealed extramarital affair as revenge against her husband, whom she seduced when she was his student, but also as a way of defying community norms and asserting herself as more than a headmaster’s wife. Margaret, beloved by the faculty’s children, hides a tortured history of abuse in the shadows of her younger life.
Though set over 50 years in the past, the stories of McMullen Circle are hauntingly meaningful and relevant today. For example, Danny, who spent two years in a POW camp, is neglected and exploited, thanked for his service, yet used as a prop to promote a movie, the depth of his damage ignored. The trial of the Cordelia Six, five Black men and a white woman who are accused of bombing a movie theater that refused to seat Black patrons, depicts the problematic struggle between a desire for social acceptance and violent expression against a system that has proven itself incapable of real justice. Edwina, the daughter of the Black school cafeteria supervisor, wants to attend The McMullen School like the children of the white workers are permitted to do. Her experience shows the delicate balance between asserting one’s rights and the uneasiness of being constantly watched and judged.
Newton’s use of imagery is sharp and masterful. In “Good Boys,” while attending the funeral of a former student who was killed in the war, Elena unconsciously traces the shape of the young man’s grieving mother, a device she recreates when she finally allows herself to mourn the tragedies of her own life. “Elena let her knees bend and leaned forward slightly, fitting her body into the shape she remembers, until she became the weeping woman.” While Richard rarely displays affection for Lorna, he harbors a love for his daughter “in the smell she had since birth, of open air and a hint of maple syrup. The smell brought him back to himself.” A fur stole that Sarah is asked to wear to a school benefit becomes a symbol of white privilege that she cashes in to bail out the rebellious granddaughter of a school board member who is arrested as part of the Cordelia Six.
Newton crafts physical detail to place memory and emotion in the reader’s mind in a way that permeates other stories. Recalling how his plane crashed into the water before being captured, Danny recalls, “It was the river he always remembered first, before the bad stuff that followed. The way it gained texture and color as the plane lost altitude. He saw the S of that river in everything.” Later, an American flag “whipped S shapes in the air, its cord slapping a rhythm against the metal flagpole,” as if taunting him. Several stories forward, as Chase watches a tightrope walker hover over another river, the same sense of fear and pending doom returns.
McMullen Circle is a deeply satisfying collection of stories, even when read independently. Yet its power lies in the integration of character, consistency of imagery, and clever connections in a way that mirrors the community it portrays: complex, grounded in history and purpose, but feeling the pains of change.
By Heather Newton
Regal House Publishing
Published January 17, 2022