By Daniel Strawhun, A&E Editor
“There’s so much more they haven’t told you. Don’t you want to know?”
Author Michelle Ross poses this question to readers at the end of “Atoms,” the first story in her debut collection of short stories, “There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You,” which will be published on February 7 by Moon City Press. The question, spoken through the sucker-stuffed mouth of a know-it-all little schoolboy, doubles as an invitation to readers to explore the rest of the 23 stories that the collection comprises.
The stories, variegated and raw, are centered in Texas and are set in everyday locales, like schoolyards, classrooms, hospitals, buses, offices, trailers, planetariums, and swimming pools—in short, the kinds of places where life happens. But, with the exception of “Rattlesnake Roundup”—the setting of which, as the title suggests, is unmistakably Texan—most of Ross’s stories have a universal quality that makes them feel like they could have happened just about anywhere in the U.S.; “There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You” is not a geographically niche book by any means.
But that is not to say that the setting is superficial or without consequence. Ross tastefully reminds readers of the stories’ southern environs with small, subtle details. In “Stories People Tell,” an epiphanic coming-of-age story in which a teenage girl loses her innocence in more ways than one, a mother asks her child, “Qué paso? Qué paso?” In “Virgins,” the protagonist’s grandfather fishes for crabs in the Texas City dike. And in “Key Concepts in Ecology,” readers are reminded of the story’s geographic location when the narrator cites, rather morbidly, the Branch Davidians’ compound in Waco, Texas as her favorite Texas landmark. The result is a collection of stories that are united, but not defined, by their common location.
If the stories’ setting is what brings them together, it is their content that sets them apart. Ross populates her stories with a diverse cast of characters, from young children to middle-aged adults. She has a knack for depicting children in particular, which she puts to good use in many of the stories.
“Virgins” is an emotionally rending but ultimately touching story about Star and Meredith, two eight-year-old girls who meet in a summer church camp. Over the course of the summer, Star witnesses and must learn to accept an assortment of traumatic experiences of varying degrees of gravity, including the September 11 terrorist attacks, the death of a crab, and the rape of her friend Meredith. By the end of the story, desperate for some semblance of control, Star attempts to drown her own pet hamster as a sacrifice for Meredith’s wrested virginity after learning the biblical story of the binding of Isaac. In Ross’s story, God does not intercede on the hamster’s behalf; however, Star’s conscience does, and she saves the struggling rodent after briefly submerging it in Meredith’s pool.
Ross also employs a variety of narrative perspectives in the collection. The book begins with the aforementioned “Atoms,” a fulgurant two-and-a-half page story told entirely in the second-person. It serves as a dramatic prologue to the rest of the stories, and Ross’s use of the second-person perspective helps to situate and invite the reader inside the fictional world of the collection. Ross also utilizes the more traditional first- and third-person styles of narration to great effect throughout the rest of the collection.
The stories also differ in their respective levels of fidelity to literary realism. Some, like “Alien Eye,” which tells the story of a gifted but lonely teen, are extremely realistic in their portrayal of both the outer and inner world. However, stories like “When the Cottonmouths Come to Feed,” which deals with a brain aneurysm, a school shooting, and the mysterious appearance of two copperhead snakes, flirt with the unknown, evoking a kind of liminal, dreamlike version of reality; still others dive right in. “Pam’s Head” is an extremely short, extremely strange story about a woman’s head suspended in gel that calls to mind the absurdist flash fiction of Donald Barthelme.
“There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You” is a promising debut from a new author. While there are brief moments of naive, overly sentimental writing (the end of “Rattlesnake Roundup” comes to mind), the book is doubtless an overall success. The collection has already won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award.
“There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You” is available for pre-order at http://www.uapress.com/dd-product/theres-so-much-they-havent-told-you/ and will arrive in bookstores on February 7.