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Road of Five Churches

Stephanie Dickinson

Eve and Ava’s ten-month-old toes curl in their sleep like minnows. Under the Pampers their purple skin unfurls. They are part puffer fish…Moon jelly Micah lifts his three-year-old hands to the light, reaching, trying to smear it over his face"

Reviewed by Kristin Thiel

You know how sometimes you can’t tell if a person is joking or not—and how you find yourself returning to his circle at the party after every trip to the food table? Stephanie Dickinson is like that through her writing. 

She has whammies: “Eve and Ava’s ten-month-old toes curl in their sleep like minnows. Under the Pampers their purple skin unfurls. They are part puffer fish…Moon jelly Micah lifts his three-year-old hands to the light, reaching, trying to smear it over his face”. And careful follow-up that make us readers wonder, does Trout, wife of a fisherman, mock the bait shop’s selection of lures—“chartreuse, firetiger, kopper, and avocado—colors that sound more like lipstick shades” —because she personally knows better what fish like? Did she drink only water for breakfast because she’s not a person but…? 

Trout, the narrator of Dickinson’s A Caterpillar Feeds the Giant Squid, turns out to be all human, pregnant with her fifth child, married to a sugar-coated demanding Christian fundamentalist, and generally overworked personally and professionally. The alienation—or at least transformation—that the reader suspects at the beginning is closer to the truth than not. Unfortunately the story’s conclusion is not as deft as the rest of it. It turns from a tale about the one that got away—and therefore remains grand in our minds—to the one our line has caught before. 

Two of Dickinson’s best stories in this collection are its title story and A Lynching in Stereoscope, the latter selected for inclusion in the Best American Nonrequired Reading Series 2005. In Road of Five Churches, the end is horrifying not only for the obvious reason but for what we suspect will happen after the story ends. The young narrator wonders earlier in the story, what if there is no “angel food cake, strawberries so ripe they bleed when bitten”; by the end, we worry for her, what if there is? 

A Lynching does an equally skilled dance of presenting a layered tragedy that slowly grows and bursts. Not as fantastical as A Caterpillar... is, this story haunts with reality’s wicked magic, in this case, rooms of secrets kept in decorative containers, one shaped like a screaming face, another “a lady box, the hair for ring storage and compartments behind her breasts”. The photo in a found stereoscope blatently explains the box’s contents. 

If anything is lacking in Dickinson’s first collection, it is that final step of critique from the author. Beyond the relationship between home-caregiver Jelly’s skin color and her elderly clients’, how does her recent-past situation mirror that of Ciz’s, one of the people in the stereoscope photo? And what does that say about how far—or rather, how little—we as a society have progressed. In another pageturner, Kimchee, the reader melts into the title character’s story, but as she asks herself at one point, so we do too: “Kimchee panted, waiting for the vibrating to subside. I’ve been somewhere. Have I brought any wisdom back”? The young thief hallucinates a better, more spiritual and forgiving place for herself while we the readers are left holding only the gold bracelet Kimchee steals and then is moved to return.

Read an excerpt from one of the stories in this collection on Rain Mountain Press' website.

Kristin Thiel writes short fiction and book reviews and tries to keep news about these current at www.kristinthiel.com. She is associate editor at Indigo Editing & Publications, www.indigoediting.com, and is fiction editor for WritersDojo.org.

Kristin's other Short Reviews: Derek Green "New World Order"   

PublisherRain Mountain Press

Publication Date: Jan 2007

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author bio: Originally from Iowa, Stephanie Dickinson and her writing have traveled far and wide—her work has appeared in Portland Review, New York Stories, and Storyquarterly, among many others. Her first novel, Half Girl, won the 2003 Hackney Award; in addition to that and Road of Five Churches, Dickinson has also published Corn Goddess.

Read an interview with Stephanie Dickinson

Buy this book (used or new) from:

The Publisher's Website: Rain Mountain Press

The Author's website: StephanieDickinson.net



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