by Diane Simmons
Ohio State University Press
First Collection Awards: Winner, 2010 Ohio State University Prize for Fiction
"It was on a top bunk in the never-ending roar of the California State
Prison at Folsom that he started reading about Alaska, going every
night into its immense and perfect silence. He read everything there
was on Alaska. Then he got an idea. Go there really. Go someplace
were you can make up your own life. Where nothing is ugly. Where
there’s nobody else to screw things up.
Reviewed by Loree Westron
is something about the open spaces of the American West that tugs at
the wanderers among us. Whether we've explored it first-hand or
paid only brief visits via the cinema screen, the western landscape –
in places devoid of human habitation, with a harsh and rugged beauty
– intrigues our vagabond spirits and draws us in. The eight
stories in Diane Simmons' Little America are set amid this
vast and unknowable backdrop and populated by a cast of rootless
wanderers, some trying to escape their pasts, others searching for a
future somewhere beyond the ever receding horizon.
the title story, we join Hank and Lorraine, a pair of small-time
fraudsters moving from one town to the next. With them is Hank's
young daughter, Billie, from whose perspective the story is told. As
we travel beside her, we see that the story is not so much about
Billie's relationships with the adults in the car, but instead
about the unknown territory of her own identity:
Billie…knew [Hank and Lorraine] were
crooks of some sort. Beyond that, she didn't know much, such as
where they came from or what their real names were. Even the idea of
a ‘real name' – as opposed to the name you were using just then
– was something she didn't pick up until the third grade when the
teacher asked why she had started writing Bunny Miller on her papers
instead of Billie Moore.
only is Billie unsure of who she really is, where she's from, and
where she belongs but she cannot even be sure that Lorraine is her
mother. All of the most basic structures which connect members of a
family together – a shared history, a collective purpose, fidelity
– are missing in Billie's world and deceit is so thoroughly woven
through her relationships that "truth" and "trust" and "loyalty" have no meaning. With so many empty spaces which she
fills and refills with parts of a fabricated identity, Billie's
interior landscape is a mutable one. For her, certainty does not
exist; nothing has permanence.
few years after Little America, we come across Billie again.
This time she's in Mexico, "driving north in a stolen Mustang"
in the story Holy Sisters. By now, she has left her husband,
and the cowboy she left her husband for, and has just been left by
her Mexican lover. She is still drifting from one place to the next,
and is, by her own admission, "a little crooked". Teaming up
with Mary Anne, an American backpacker who has just been robbed,
Billie sets off to return to the States.
most respects, Billie is streetwise: she knows what she needs to do
to survive and she does it. But there is an innocence about her,
too. When a man "carrying a big belly in a dingy white shirt"
offers the women three hundred dollars to drive two nuns across the
border to collect aid from a convent in El Paso, it is Mary Anne who
is immediately suspicious. Billie, though, is captivated by thoughts
of the ‘little heaven' of the mountain mission where the nuns are
ultimately to be delivered. "When you return [from El Paso],"
the man tells her, "you stay in the mission as long as you wish."
Billie's desire for the peaceful setting and the "secret-of-life
type stuff" she can learn from the indios hints of an
unspoken longing for permanence and meaning. But this desire
overrides her good sense and leads her into dangerous territory.
many of the other tough but likeable women who populate the stories
in this collection, Billie is a survivor. She's canny and she's
smart. But she is also vulnerable, and the reader senses that one of
these days her luck is bound to run out.
Suitcase, we see precisely the sort of risks that Simmons'
impulsive characters are taking. It is 1972 and Marie, a Nebraska
farm girl, heads off to Guatemala "to join the Indians in their
fight against a repressive government". Young and idealistic, she
is in search of a purpose to her life, but a discovery in the Mexican
jungle shatters her illusions and gives her a glimpse of her own
most of the stories in Little America take place on the move,
In the Garden visits a group former hippies who have settled
into a semblance of suburbia on an island off the coast of Seattle.
Yet still there is a restless energy. As two 30-something couples
come together in the narrator's garden to drink Red Zingers and
gin, we sense they are all teetering on the brink of change.
between the couples is typically domestic at first, centred on the
blackberry vines encroaching upon the garden and the best methods for
combating slugs. As they become increasingly more inebriated,
though, Lulu's dissatisfaction with her life becomes apparent:
Can you believe the people down the
road from us came to the door and wanted us to buy tickets for some
PTA thing? Christ, I never thought I'd end up someplace where they
actually had the nerve to come around and sell stuff for the PTA.
are people who never expected to grow up and settle down and though
they remain on the fringes of society with their gardens and goats
and their "funky old houses", we get the feeling that even this
compromise might be too much. Yet the very act of buying a house or
planting a garden seems to belie the characters' nostalgic visions
of the ‘freedoms' they once possessed and the reader is left
wondering whether the open road really does still call to them, or if
they only wished it did.