Little America
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

There 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.

In 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.
Not 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.

A 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.

In 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.

Like 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.

In 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 mortality.

While 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.

Conversation 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.
These 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.

Read an excerpt from a story from this collection on FreezeInTheDark.Blogspot.Com

Loree Westron grew up in Idaho and is now studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester. She is on the editorial board of Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, and is the editor of the Thresholds Short Story Forum.

Loree's other Short Reviews: Sherman Alexie "Ten LIttle Indians"

Eddie Chuculate "Cheyenne Madonna"

Cris Mazza "Trickle-Down Timeline"

Jim Goar "The Louisiana Purchase"

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Diane Simmons grew up in Eastern Oregon and worked as a journalist throughout the West before moving to New York. Her novel Dreams Like Thunder won the Oregon Book Award and her short fiction has been widely published. She is a professor of English at City University of New York.

Read an interview with Diane Simmons