I often ignore literary awards because of the hype. I am going to make an exception. Kirstin Valdez Quade, the author of the short story collection “Night at the Fiestas” was selected by Andre Dubus III (author of “House of Sand and Fog”) to be one of the 2014 recipients of the 5 under 35 award of the National Book Foundation. She joins, Phily Klay (selected by Andrea Barrett) for “Redeployment”; Alex Gilvarry (selected by Amy Bloom) for “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant”; Valeria Luselli (selected by Karen Tei Yamashita) for “Faces in the Crowd”; and Yelena Akhtiorskaya (selected by Aleksandar Hemon) for “Panic in a Suitcase.” “Redeployment”, which I previously read and reviewed, won the 2014 National Book Award. If the other three books are as good as “Night at the Fiestas” and “Redeployment”, the 5 under 35 award winners should be followed.
I find it difficult to review short story collections. You don’t want to reveal the plot. It is hard to capture the emotions conveyed and characters developed. This is particularly the case where the stories have an atmosphere.
The locale for the ten stories is Northern New Mexico. I felt the weakest of the stories was “Night at the Fiestas”. The story captures the insecure angst of a sheltered, small town teenage girl embarrassed by her bus driver father and his tired stories. He proudly drives her on his route to the fiesta in Santa Fe, where she hopes to find romance that she believes she can handle. The story’s weakness is relative to the strength of the other stories.
Ms. Quade writes well, but these stories are not embellished by literary prose. Some plots are dramatic, but the author’s specialty is conveyance of emotion and family relationships. Tension is the emotion in the first two stories: “Nemecia” and “Mojave Rats”. A child, Maria, both fears and is jealous of her seven-year older cousin Nemecia who has come to live with her family. Mystery shrouds her reason for living with them. Her parents dote on Nemecia and to Maria seem to favor her. Nemecia only shares with Maria her secret that she murdered her parents.
A fragile marriage is unraveling in the desert in “Mohave Rats”. Monica’s new marriage to a geologist has moved her from upscale to downscale. She is left alone with her child for a few days in a trailer whose heater is broken. Hungry and cold she won’t approach the trailer class for help. When a child from the adjacent trailer comes into her trailer to sell trinkets, Monica impulsively gives the child her the remnant of her former life, including her only remaining expensive dress that her own child jealously claims an interest in. She subsequently resents charity voluntarily given, but taken as an expectation. The theme of class charity is also explored in “Canute Commands the Tides”, where a housewife retiring from wealthy Connecticut comes to Santa Fe to free and find her artistic self again in the lightness of the Southwest. Darkness envelops her as she burdens herself with her housekeeper and her family.
In ” The Five Wounds” a failed husband and father to an out-of-wedlock daughter tries to find respect and salvation by being actually crucified in a reenactment of the Passion Play. In “The Guesthouse” an alcoholic father and a perennially weak daughter claim rehabilitation and trump the responsible son who juggling his fragile mother while trying to close the estate of his grandmother by selling her house. In “Ordinary Sins” an out-of-wedlock clerical worker in the parish hears confession of the on the wagon priest who believes he is about to be replaced by a more conservative cleric.
“Claire was always in trouble for swearing, usually for saying “Oh my God.” It popped out without her noticing and hard to control because no one could explain to her why Mormons thought God was a bad word. She thought they were supposed to like God. It was particularly galling to get in trouble for swearing, because her mom didn’t even allow stupid or hate or shut up, which all the kids got to say.
“Try detest,” her stepfather Will had suggested. “Try loathe or abhor or execrate.”
“Claire’s mother shifted Emma to her other breast and smile across the table at Will, shaking her head. ‘Thanks, sweetie. That’s very helpful.”
In “Family Reunion” Claire, whose father is an alcoholic and who is from the wrong side of the tracks and religion, is trying to ingratiate herself by melding with a Mormon family who takes on a purported family reunion. There are many places to find God, but this was not one of them.
In “The Manzanos” and “Jubilee” remembering where you came from is the point. Cuipas is a small dying town who has more family history below ground than above. A young woman stays for her ailing grandfather, but while she loves the simplicity of the life, in “The Manzanos” she longs to cross the mountains to change her life.
Class consciousness is often heightened by insecurities of those who perceive themselves as underclass. In “Jubilee” the daughter of a farm worker and taco truck owner attends Stanford, with the daughter of the owner of the farm where her dad worked. She is resentful and subconscious of her perceived position, even though the owner’s family has been generous to her own and not condescending. She makes a scene at party of the farm owner, even as she learns their family and their daughter are having emotional problems. Some time in the fields brings her back to her roots.
When asked what she would have done if she was not a writer, Ms. Quade said she would be a biologist. There is no evidence of this in this collection, but maybe this will be revealed in later works. Someone to watch.