I love to read and write short stories, and I especially love collections and anthologies that adopt a specific theme. A common thread always makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
The title of The Best of Ohio Short Stories immediately piqued my interest. Here would be a measured collection of stories by different authors united by a common thread – but then I realised I didn’t fully understand what that thread would be. What does it mean to be an Ohio short story? I was intrigued.
It turns out they are all Ohioan authors, rather than stories set in Ohio. Brad Pauquette’s wry introduction makes a lighthearted attempt to define what it means to be Ohioan. He cites Internet memes: more Ohioans are library users than any other state; they’re also apparently “the nerdiest”. I sought further clarification with a straw poll of my friends, asking what sprang to mind at the mention of Ohio. Their answers were no more helpful:
- “round at the ends and HI in the middle, it’s O-HI-O” (song)
- “on the banks of the Ohio” (more singing)
- “It’s Japanese for good morning”
- “I misread that – I thought it said 'Oh no!' because so many FB statuses start that way”
- “Oreo cookies”
- “Potatoes – or is that Idaho?”
- “An overpowering desire to get out of there”
I was no further forward. But one thing struck me as soon as I started to read this solid and highly varied collection: Ohioans really know how to write. Whether their themes are lightweight or heavy, poignant or humorous, quirky or anarchic, these stories are original and impressive. Whatever the genre, the various voices are strong and purposeful, the writing literary, smart and assured.
To set straight any readers who are expecting all the stories to be set in Ohio, it’s a smart move to open the collection with a powerful story set about Ohioan students adrift in France, in which one of the characters is drawn home to Ohio by tragedy. Many of the stories are set far from the state, but I often had the feeling that all roads led back to Ohio, as if all the characters were on invisible elastic that might ping them back at any time. You can take the girl out of Ohio, but...
There’s also a sense of tight-lipped resignedness about each of the stories, as if the authors share a certain disillusionment with life. Some of the stories, if read aloud, would be best enunciated through gritted teeth. Even so, there’s not quite enough quiet desperation to make the characters surrender (though in some of the stories, they very nearly do). Even the more brutal stories are strangely life-affirming, with something pulling characters back from the brink, averting tragedy or offering a glimmer of hope. (I don’t want to be more specific for fear of plot-spoilers.) In all but a few uniformly dark stories, there is also a strong vein of self-deprecating humour running through. Another Ohioan trait, perhaps?
This powerful collection definitely put Ohio and its gifted writers on the map for me in a much more positive way than I’d expected. And I hope that will make Ohioan librarians everywhere very proud.