There are some books that exist to make their audience walk away feeling good about life and the world around them, and then there are books like The Best American Newspaper Narratives, Volume 4, which makes readers face gritty truths, some harder to process than others. Each year, the anthology “collects the ten winners of the 2016 Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Contest at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.” This year’s edition, edited by award-winning Gayle Reaves, features first place winner Stephanie McCrummen with “An American Void,” second place Christopher Goffard with “Fleeing Syria: The Choice,” and third place Sarah Schweitzer with “The Life and Times of Strider Wolf,” plus, the contest's seven runners-up.
The three winners all focus on a sense of place and home, inviting readers to consider questions: What makes a home? How do you know when you’re there? What do you do when you’re home and it doesn’t feel safe or doesn’t feel permanent? What do you do when it feels lonely and disconnected from family, like a void?
Stephanie McCrummen’s “An American Void” (Washington Post, September 2015) hones in on the Meeks family, the people who housed Dylann Roof in the weeks before he brought a gun to Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, NC, and murdered nine African American churchgoers. There has been more than enough said on Roof, and McCrummen focuses instead on the people the killer surrounded himself with, the piece reading almost like a quick character study on the members of the family and Lindsey Fry, who dates Joey, the third Meeks brother.
The family lives in a trailer in “an American void where little is sacred and little is profane and the dominant reaction to life is what Joey does now, looking at Lindsey. He shrugs.” There’s apathy and hopelessness in this void, evident when considering the trailer’s occupants were aware Roof had a gun and plans of destruction but ultimately did nothing. However, McCrummen shows ways the family does build home and security: Joey’s mother jampacks her Facebook with inspirational quotes, Joey accepts friends in need into their home, Lindsey Fry cuddles with her puppy Daisy. They may live in “an American void,” but they each find ways to attempt to fill the void. My heart ached at the end of McCrummen’s piece that places readers directly in the home Roof once found himself a part of. Although the writing is vivid enough on its own, readers can find the original article with images of the home and the people involved.
Instead of a trailer packed with the comings and goings of family and friends, Christopher Goffard writes of a home that’s devoid of the rest of one’s family in “Fleeing Syria: The Choice” (Los Angeles Times, September 2015). We follow Sawsan Ghazal as she wakes before dawn and leaves her apartment and family in Istanbul to travel alone to her new life—far from their old life in Aleppo—in Sweden. Two children with thalassemia, a genetic blood disorder; a husband with slipped discs in his back; and another child with anxiety leave Sawsan the only one of her family capable of fleeing to a safer place. Goffard highlights the bravery and resilience of Sawsan as she builds a new home in anticipation for her family to one day join her. But it’s lonely, and attempting to have her family join her keeps resulting in dead ends. “I kind of lost hope,” her son admits to her. However, Goffard leaves us with some hope, hope that Sawsan herself hasn’t given up on quite yet. It is this little glimmer that makes the piece and Sawsan’s sacrifices worthwhile. Life in Sweden away from family is lonely, but light still shines in.
There are moments of light in the darkness of Sarah Schweitzer’s “The Life and Times of Strider Wolf” (Boston Globe, September 2015). Five-year-old Strider Wolf and his brother live with his grandparents after life-threatening abuse from his mother’s ex-boyfriend, and after losing their home, the family struggles to find more permanent housing instead of moving every few days in their camper. Throughout this, Strider struggles, lashing out when memories of his old life with “bad mommy” and frustrations stack up, and clinging to his grandparents. Schweitzer forces readers to observe and consider living this lifestyle that seems unimaginable to me as an adult with no children, and even more pressing and stressful with children, children who need and yearn for stability. Again, there are those moments of light and hope: a birthday party with cupcakes and gifted dollars, improvements in school, and, finally: “In mid-August, they found a house on Craigslist in an old mill town, Lisbon, about half an hour away. They paid a visit to assure the owner that they were decent people. He decided the house could be theirs.”
Not every narrative in the collection deals with ideas of home, but they all draw readers in while painting vivid images of character and place. Each demonstrates their skill with narratives ranging from the hopeful and enlightening—like Mark Johnson’s “Patient, Surgeon Work Together” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 2015), which invites us into the operating room as Amin Kassam performs surgery on Kurt Kelling, all while Kelling is awake and communicating with Kassam—to the thrilling, like Michael M. Phillips with “Inside an FBI Hostage Crisis” (The Wall Street Journal, October 2015), which takes readers right into the action (and anxiety) during a stressful and challenging hostage situation.
The anthology closes with Gina Barton’s “Unsolved: A Murdered Teen, a 40-year Mystery” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November-December 2015), a seven-part podcast in its original form. The narrative focuses on the disappearance and murder of John Zera in the 70s, and while this could be a testament to the evils humans are capable of, it instead ends up demonstrating the perseverance and strength humans are capable of. It’s been decades since John’s disappearance, but he has not been given up on. People are still tirelessly searching to find the truth, including Detective Kent Schoonover who once worked on the case and has returned to it as a volunteer after his retirement. While there are no solid answers given at the end of this piece, we are again left with scraps of hope.
The Best American Newspaper Narratives, Volume 4 showcases 10 of the best narratives of 2015 which invite readers into the homes, heads, and hopes of their subjects. Masterfully and poignantly written, each narrative grips and refuses to let go, a collection perfect for the voracious absorber of newspaper narratives and the casual reader alike.