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Short story collections are pieced together in much the same manner as quilts. They may appear as easily discerned patterns, with several of their scraps cut from the same cloth. Or they may seem like fabricated works of salvation: eclectic, with certain pieces prettier than others. William Henry Lewis’ far-ranging first collection, In the Arms of Our Elders, is assembled with the heartfelt intention to make its disparate narratives useful, to see the weave of experience in its most revealing light. Lewis’ humanist ethic guides his work; whatever evenhandedness his collection might lack is easily forgotten in its considerable warmth.
The characters in Lewis’ nine stories grapple with vastly different situations in locales as diverse as Puget Sound, Denver, and Cape Cod. His writing style adapts itself to each new setting, with mixed success. While several of these stories focus on particulars of African-American life (among them racism, family, and community), Lewis uses a variety of narrative voices to explore the cross-cultural difficulties of young marriage, solitary old age, and post-collegiate years. Only Lewis’ eminent compassion is unwavering.
In “Other People’s Houses,” for instance, Rich, a marginally employed liberal-arts graduate, tells of the winter he squatted in a series of Cape Cod cottages with “three sardonic White kids.” He starts at the beginning, with the first house-breaking and its anticlimactic aftermath: “Much like my other first times—drinking, having sex, or taking the SATs—doing the first house wasn’t very dramatic….[T]he next morning found us tired, drinking someone else’s coffee, not saying anything as each of us silently tried to dismiss the bad in our arrival.” One part of the bad is Rich’s growing infatuation with Gwen, his erstwhile housemate, who is too blond and “tragically nineteen.” He imagines his strait-laced father’s horror at his illegal living arrangement and hears his long-suffering mother moan, “[W]hy blond hair, Richard, why so pale?” But Gwen is like the houses he and his friends select, Rich thinks: “First, you see only object, nothing more.” The resolution Rich selects is surprisingly moral and ultimately humane, as the character finally beholds the true value of the object in his life.
As Elders‘ title suggests, the figurative parents of Lewis’ characters often reach into present time and hold their children back, or—as the case may be—steady. Lewis’ concluding story, “Germinating,” reprises a character introduced in the first, the ancient Lauralinda of “The Days the Light Stays On.” In a gesture that nicely frames the collection, Lauralinda and the narrator, a 17-year-old boy, keep silent but cordial company at a family reunion. They observe their “relatives…holding paper plates of cold chicken and looking for someone to embrace….A whole group, a whole parkful, an entire family, missing somebody to hold.” Lewis’ keenest insights spring from his recognition that the people we love mediate our sense of belonging, and his weaker pieces—“Moving” and “Leaving the Dog”—are those in which our understanding of the characters’ connections with one another is somehow cut short, and eclipsed by a stylistic self-consciousness lacking in the other stories.
Elders‘ loveliest piece is unquestionably “A Man and His Son Went Looking for Pine Planks,” Lewis’ story of a father and son (“also a man”) selecting pine for the elder man’s coffin at a lumberyard. “[T]hose things needed doing,” the omniscient narrative explains—the firewood needed chopping, and the truck needed turning-over. “All a soul could do was make ready.” And it is the son’s time to make himself ready, and accept his father’s impending death. He sees the way his father’s body has grown like the wood they chose, “the way the dark wrinkle of his father’s neck seemed to match the earth,” and finds comfort in the soil. This story showcases Lewis’ most luminous and meditative prose, as well as his most poignant concern: the delicate but enduring quality of the ties holding us together.