This week I’m finishing a few last stories from my “warm-up” reading (Best American Short Stories 2010 and Siobhan Fallon’s collection You Know When the Men Are Gone) before tackling Chekhov.
“Remission”, from You Know When the Men Are Gone, was a re-read. OK, I’m a sap, but it made me cry both times that I read it.
Fallon’s book is a very strong collection of eight stories about Army families stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. Some of her protagonists are wives; some are soldiers. The stories cover departure and reunion, betrayal, loss, longing, and family. They’re all strong stories, and having been lived on a military base similar to Fort Hood a couple of times (the main thing to know is that it’s like living in a fishbowl), I can vouch for the authenticity of the characters and Fallon’s voice in bringing them to life.
The two primary characters in “Remission” – Ellen, a mother fighting cancer, and her rebellious teenage daughter Delia – had a special resonance for me. I’m not fighting cancer, but I do have a twelve-year-old son who’s just beginning his phase of adolescent rebellion. (Tonight he informed me, not for the first time, that he considers me a failure as a parent. My usual response is that I must be a failing parent indeed, because I clearly failed to teach him manners and respect for his elders.) Like Ellen, I once found myself sitting on the edge of my son’s bed, crying and asking him, “Why did you do this to me?”
The title of the story is perfect. The mother’s cancer is in remission, as far as she knows – she misses the appointment to go over the results of her most recent scan when the school calls to inform her that her daughter has disappeared with her five-year-old brother in tow. At one point during the search, Ellen remembers looking up the definition of “remission”: “Forgiveness, she had read, a decrease in the magnitude of a force, but not the eradication, just the respite, a second chance.” That single sentence encapsulated for me what “Remission” is about on multiple levels: Ellen’s cancer, her husband’s temporary respite from deployment to Iraq in order to be with her during treatment, and the relationship between Ellen and Delia.
The last sentence is particularly fine. I don’t think I could quote it without spoiling the story, though.
If you have to pick one short story collection to read this year, You Know When the Men Are Gone would be an excellent choice.