In This Light is one of the oldest collections on my shelf of books I own. I purchased it at a reading in 2011 (it was published by Graywolf Press that year) and met the author. I picked her up at the airport and was invited to a (free) pre-reading dinner at the pricey inn on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. This was before I took notes at readings, so I don’t have anything to add about the author other than I remember at dinner she ate only steamed vegetables and she admired my colorful dress.
I had previously read Thon’s collection of short stories called Girls in the Grass (1991) and her novel Sweet Hearts (2001). In This Light contains new short stories and some old ones from the collections Girls in the Grass and First, Body. I knew Thon’s style was visceral and dark, and that she uses Native American characters in many stories, though I’m not sure she’s Native American herself. She grew up in Montana and has said, “I’m fascinated with the way conflict and solace come together in Native American history.” Most of the stories in the collection are set in Montana (and some in the town where Thon was raised).
In This Light is 266 pages long, but it went by so quickly when I was reading. It was disconcerting to note a short story that clocked in at 40 pages, but then feel great joy in getting carried away and reading the whole thing in one sitting. Thon comes from an academic and literary tradition — she herself has taught creative writing at a number of universities — so the sentences are more challenging to dig into. Thus, stopping the experience of reading to analyze a single sentence can lead to confusion. It’s so easy to flow along in the head of a narrator that pausing to reflect can destroy the poetic story building. For instance, here is a passage that makes perfect sense in the flow of things, but stopping to analyze the language leaves me scratching my head:
Sometimes when I dream, the night I met Vincent Blew is just a movie I’m watching. Every body is huge. Yellow Dog’s brilliant face fills the screen. He grins. He hangs on to that torch too long. I try to close my eyes, but the lids won’t come down. His body bursts, shards of light; his body tears the sky apart. Then everything’s on fire: pond, grass, hair — boy’s breath, red shirt.
My solution was to NOT stop and dig deeper, but to enjoy the story itself. That worked beautifully.
Several of the stories describe children, especially girls, who turn nearly feral without supportive parents. They break into homes to shower, use drugs, dance wildly in a way that suggests emotional deterioration as they try to hang on to their humanity.
But in one story, a poverty-stricken woman collects all the abandoned children in her community and tries to care for them. Thon makes it clear that when children and parents are separated, it’s unlikely they will reunite. There is a line that children are forced to cross, and when they do, they can’t return:
Out here in the woods, down in The Child Dump, everybody was half-human. If you stole groceries to eat in Depot Park, you could convince yourself you might go home someday, scrub yourself clean, eat at your mother’s table. But if one day in August you got so hungry you ate crackling bugs rolled in leaves, you had to believe you’d turned part lizard and grown the nub of a tail.
Thanks to Thon’s choice to write stories in various points of view (past or present, first or third), readers get a variety of experiences with characters coming from different backgrounds, from the fringe of society sentenced to death to the privileged who are forgiven their crimes. It’s easy to remain in whatever point of view in which the story was written, to get sucked into the lived experience of a character who watches a storm cloud brew over life.
I was glad I read In This Light, not only because it is the first short story collection I’ve read in over 16 months (!), but because it is a smart, compelling collection written by an author whose dream-like prose gels beautifully with her unique narratives.