Until picking up Julie Hensley’s Landfall: A Ring of Stories, I had never heard linked short story collections described as a “ring.” But Hensley’s book is exactly that, and it makes me hungry for more collections of stories so craftily connected. Taut with tension and carefully ordered, the stories follow characters as they move in and out of Conrad’s Fork, Kentucky. Landfall: A Ring of Stories makes good on its titular promise by leading the reader in a complete circle, back to the family farm where the collection begins.
Each of the 14 stories is dated with a year, ranging from 1965 to 2008, and the narrators are provided when necessary. Hensley masterfully breathes life into these characters so their voices are unmistakable. In the opening story “Bread Pudding,” Helen is a secret-keeper who confides in the reader:
This is not the story of my lover. And neither is it the story of my girls, although both their beginnings are gnarled somewhere in the thick of what I’m going to tell you. . . . I am allowed my secret. We all move around it carefully, knowingly. It grows larger and greener like the grass the cows leave untouched around last year’s manure. The people I love radiate out from a season of loss.
In “The Sounds of Animals,” 39-year-old Cora desires a child with her husband, a cow-breeder. When she steps outside one evening, she looks over the farm.
Behind me is the pull of Elden sleeping through our bedroom window. It feels like we are connected by a string, like the rising and falling of his chest tugs gently on mine. There are no stars, so I know the clouds must be swelling overhead, getting ready for another rain. I listen through the thick air that hangs around the farmhouse, and I inhale the sound of animals brushing against each other in the dark.
Other stories are told in second person, enveloping the reader in the small spaces of farm country through precise language. In “Expecting,” teenage Grace moves in with her aunt, Cora, and helps on the farm:
Up in the loft, a skim of rich dust coats the floor, along with little seeds and pieces of hay. You’ve been coming here almost every day. A window opens out the back of the loft. Sometimes you sit there and let your legs swing over the side, look up the ridge where the bones of all those new houses look pale and naked on top of the ridge. But more often than not, you just lie back in the dust, and that is what you do today. You don’t mind that it clings to your hair and coats to your skin like powder.
Some stories in the collection drift away from Conrad’s Fork, such as in “Sugar” when a high school graduate leaves town to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles, and some stories take place in the nearby college town, Garrison, filled with shops, churches, and celebrations perhaps unfamiliar to readers. One story, “Dry River,” allows readers to see the small town through the eyes of a newcomer, Lincoln, and feel the loneliness of being a stranger:
The Sugar Maple Festival ran the third weekend in November . . . Sullivan Street was closed to traffic, and vendors set up booths that spilled over onto the college mall. There was kettle popcorn and candy apples and BBQ turkey legs. Artists laid out beaded necklaces and watercolors of the Appalachian Mountains. That smiled at him and asked where he was from. How, Lincoln wondered, could they still recognize him as an outsider?
Hensley magnifies the seemingly ordinary lives of small-town people and exposes their stresses, failures, and successes. Families and friends grow together and apart over decades, and no matter how comfortable life may seem, at some point things will change for better or worse. Hensley’s language in painting Appalachian communities is haunting and beautiful, and each story, though standing solidly alone, falls into place as a chain in the unforgettable ring that is Landfall: A Ring of Stories.