The theme of this issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review is “People and Place.” The featured writers are Ann Beattie, Catherine E. McKinley, Garret Keizer, and Tess Taylor, but all of the 25 contributors are impressive and well worth reading and re-reading.
Garret Keizer’s “Walt” provides a personal remembrance that can’t help but trigger the reader’s best memories of their own most influential family member. “Step one: Fall for your high school sweetheart. Step two: Fall for her dad.”
Benjamin Rachlin’s “The Accidental Beekeeper” is supported by the photographs of Peter Frank Edwards. We travel through the North Carolina countryside and are given a delightful description of the bee industry in a homage to both the people and the place, made even more comfortable by the fact that both the words and the pictures truly allow us to see rather than just imagine the experience. Like all of the photo essays, the pictures can be enjoyed without the text; the text can be enjoyed alone, and the combination brings you back to the experience.
The experience of people and place is just as vivid in the variety of poetry, in works such as Kevin Hart’s “Apart”:
Above me in the night
My unknown neighbors walk
Across a creaking floor
And sometimes fight.
The poetry selection adds a poignant note to the longer essays and short fiction. Each one provides its own personal commentary on our search for place and identity. Each supports the beauty of the photo-essays.
In “Summer On The Island,” photographer Benjamin Rasmussen shows us home in the remote but endearing Faroe Islands. Next we are given an artist’s collection in Audrey Niffenegger’s portfolio “Awake in the Dream World.” Telling photos by Scott Dalton reinforce Lauren Markham’s essay “First the Fence, Then the System.” The photos of the border captivate the eye while the essay strongly impresses us with what happens when Central American children illegally enter the U.S alone and then enter the ‘system.’
The most colorful (since they’re all impressive) are the photos by Thabiso Sekgala accompanying Catherine E. McKinley’s essay “It’s All About the Cow," which showcase the dress of Namibian women and the place of politics in fashion. These collections have the reader enjoying the text and the photos twice over and then some.
Tyler Stiem’s “For Everyman A Wife” is a short story about a man’s attempts to regain old memories, old friends, and old lovers. The third world context adds to the flavor of the intrigue we experience as he travels through dangerous locales:
Appiah, the guide, and the two soldiers reached the summit at midday. . . . The Congolese border cut the lake in half, an invisible wall that kept the chaos at bay. They ate the packed lunches while the younger soldier watched them and smoked. He was too familiar.”
Stiem’s sparse style hammers detail after detail to reinforce the tension of the central character’s feelings.
Early in Joyce Carol Oates’s “The Jesters,” the scene is set for a story of confusion and lost direction in what should have been a predictable place and a predictable life: “Like a labyrinth, it was! Crescent Lake Farms was not a residential area hospitable to strangers. Easily one could become lost in a maze of ‘drives,’ ‘lanes,’ ‘ways,’ and ‘circles,’ for the gated community had been designed to discourage aimless driving.”
Each of the pieces uses the author’s style to reinforce the feelings and responses of troubled characters. They remind the reader of a time and place; that’s what the best is supposed to do. And this collection does.