With the #metoo movement still changing the conversation on how women are treated in the US, this book of stories set in the 60s felt culturally relevant rather than retro. In three short fictions, Sandra Scofield examines the ambivalence and vulnerability of three women as well as the entitlement and ignorance of the men in their lives. Gender, more telling of one’s mobility and expectations in the 1960s than today, casts the male and female characters in narrowly defined roles. Women long for masculine freedoms and adopt a rebellious edge to keep themselves out of prepackaged social norms, while the various men in their lives conform to egoism, salvific nostalgia, and violent acts of privilege.
The work in Swim: Stories of the Sixties is well-wrtten, slow at times but with the necessary drama to build a more believable fiction toward a surprise (but not a too surprising) end. In “Oh Baby Oh,” the first of the three stories, a young woman hitchhikes across country to be with a man she had corresponded with via letters for three years after meeting him only once, a man for whom she will try to play a domesticated role—a woman in need of saving—but not convincingly enough.
The story explores some very real emotional territory when it comes to the way men and women are socialized to co-exist, and yet remain worlds apart in their bodies and experiences. The narrator writes:
The truth is that although she is relieved to be in Nikko’s hands for the time being, and though she is impressed with his courtesy and especially with the speed of his response, and though he is obviously clean and neat and anyone would say he is an attractive young man . . . she is trying to suppress her feelings about him as an Other. A Them. Because when you think about it, guys are aliens.
Likewise, in “An Easy Pass,” a young American woman from West Texas becomes a matador’s mistress—another woman seeking asylum in a man’s world by adapting to expected gender roles even if they don’t fit. Scofield exquisitely compares the world of bulls and cows to human socialization:
A brave bull leads a lovely life until he is led into the ring. The work of the ranch is to assure that he is handsome, strong, and brave. The stud bull has a harem, and the cows must not be timid creatures, or, it is believed, the progeny will be disappointing and even shameful. So there is the testing. The cows are lanced and caped (they can be very fast) and if they perform well they are chosen for breeding; if not, they are someone’s meat.
In the final act of “An Easy Pass,” the young woman is beat by the matador, an eerie actualization of these breeding rituals.
Finally, the book’s title story “Swim” brings so much of a woman’s reality home as two military men from Lawton, Oklahoma vacation in Greece where they meet a smart young Texan woman named “Baby” and her German roommate Daphne. Values collide, as do sexual tensions, between religious ideals, domestic expectations, desire, and a woman’s desperation to be both free from and cared for in a world governed by various forms of, essentially, the same sort of man. “Once” she admits to Bony, one of the military men,
I hitchhiked across the whole country to see a soldier I’d spent two hours with years before. I thought he would take care of me. Try and guess how that went. Here’s what I’ve learned about soldiers. They love a free-spirited girl until they decide she ought to be a better person. They think they can make it happen if she cooperates.
In a not-so-surprising ending, Baby swims out to sea after Bony and his friend discuss taking her to a military base where she could be properly cared for. To Baby, this is exactly the horror she has been living vicariously to escape because it comes with the weights and expectations of female socialization, entrapments she could not endure.
Like Salinger, Steinbeck, or Hemingway stories, Scofield’s work in Swim is thought-provoking and complex, a short book at only 127 pages, but perhaps not a short read. Slide this one into your carry-on to read on the plane or at the beach, when you have time to yourself to seriously consider the way that men and women were defined in and survived through the sixties, and perhaps how little has changed today.