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Contemporary Experiences
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Christine Schutt
A Day, a Night, Another Day, Summer (Orlando:  Harvest (Harcourt), 2005.  157p.)

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This is a collection of contemporary short stories.  Shutt's style is fascinating and at times challenging.  She writes from within the experience of each story.

Sometimes we are not certain exactly who her character is, but we are seeing with the character, thinking with the character, feeling with the character, piecing the story together as we go and missing some of the pieces.  We enter in the middle sometimes and continue till the recitation ends, but the story is still not clear, not finished, uncertain.

One story is particularly poignant for me.  A rather long story, portraying the experience of watching a parent lose contact with reality.  "See Amid the Winter's Story" jumps from now to earlier at different stages in the mother's life or the offspring's life, placing us within the daughter's gathered memories of the mother's young life as told to the child at an earlier stage, sparked by the mother's lostness in her disconnected memories, drifting through time and memory, sometimes here, sometimes near, sometimes far away and long ago.

The pathos of the experience comes through.  We never learn the identity of the adult child telling the experience, but we feel with her the strain of losing her mother even while the parent is right in front of her.  We feel the grief and awkwardness of the family situation and the current challenges for children and grandchildren trying to relate to an unconnected loved one, confused, uncertain, grieving, embarrassed, yearning, but likewise rejoicing in the lucid, loving moments of recognition.

I was unfamiliar with Shutt, but this is not her first publication.  She is lauded by critics for her creative style and vivid portrayals.  Shutt's stories capture for us important but sad insights into contemporary culture, as we are introduced to people adrift, unsure of who they are, where they are going, what is happening.

Many of her characters live life as victims pulled, tossed, pushed, squeezed by powers unseen and unassailable, or unidentifiable in the self-persecuting relationships with people they haplessly allow into their lives.  The characters evoke our sympathy, even our pity, as they find themselves powerless to change these unfulfilling or destructive relationships, seeming to lack energy to make the effort, and unsure of the ultimate value anyway, having no reference point for the possility that anything better might be found to take the place of the unsatisfactory situations in which they have slid.

I decided initially to take this collection home in order to gain some insights into current American popular culture, to learn what American writers were writing about what they themselves saw in the world around them.  My goal was satisfied in this set of short stories.  But the image I am left with is disturbing.

Is everyone in contemporary American culture really so hoplessly unsure of who they are and where they are going, and why they might even want to make an effort to get there in any particular condition?  These are challenging perspectives, not encourging.  Or is Shutt portraying the atypical person in our communities?  Perhaps her characters are not truly representative of the people of contemporary America.  I hope not.

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Read 25 March 2009
First review posted on Amazon 26 March 2009
Finalized and posted on Thoughts and Resources 29 March 2009

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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