I picked this book up because a, it was written by a Pennsylvania writer and b, because of the glowing review written for it by Karen Russell and short story writer and novelist whose writing I love (literary but not stuffy).
(Incidentally, this is a great way to discover new writers: rely on recommendations and blurbs from writers you already admire. Also: anthology editors are often authors. Find one whose own work you like, then read a book full of the things that get them excited!)
The first story in this collection is called “Shakedown”, and is, in part, about the ‘shakedown’ run of an old steam engine that has been rebuilt. It’s not really about that though. It’s about small town Pennsylvania and the people who live here, but still remember the coal days and the steel days and booming industrial years.
The protagonist’s grandfather is one of these men: fiercely independent, invulnerable, never one to bend to someone else’s rules if he doesn’t see the point in them.
We meet him,
“…out in the front yard, in his underwear, pistol in his right hand, bathrobe flapping behind him like a cape.”
It’s an irresistible image. He’s not an easy man, nor one I’d necessarily want as an authority figure in my family, but he does leap off the page.
The whole story is like that: lushly-drawn, deft, and absorbing. We get to know the characters well, without the author expending a lot of words on them. And the author’s voice is the narrator’s voice, almost invisible, but very skillful.
I loved this story in part because I spent so much time at the Strasburg Railroad when my boys were little, and could ‘see’ the train and the towns and the people; but mostly I loved it because it was so well done.
I’m looking forward to the rest of the collection!