Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Bonds of Love and Blood: Short Stories
by Marylee MacDonald
ISBN 978-1-940333-08-3, http://www.summertimepublications.com
Prior to the release of her new book, Bonds of Love and Blood, American author Marylee MacDonald published four books, including two novels, Montpelier Tomorrow and The Rug Bazaar. The stories in Bonds of Love and Blood, all published in well-known U.S. literary magazines, centre upon fully-rounded, very human characters in several countries and various circumstances.
The title story, “Bonds of Love and Blood” and a subsequent story, “Tesekkur” are both set in Turkey. In the first story, Angela, a U.S. postal inspector, is sad to return to her everyday “dead” life after her holiday adventures. She has had a fling with Hamdi, a (married) rug merchant. When she goes to say goodbye to him on her last day, he pressures her to purchase a rug, and when she declines, he insists on a farewell dinner.
At the restaurant, he turns up with Kathryn, his New Zealand-born wife, and his friend Ahmet, whom he has brought as Angela’s date. During the meal the men reveal that Hamdi rehabilitated Ahmet from drug use and urge Angela to contribute $500 to the drug rehabilitation centre they are establishing. In private, Kathryn warns her not to do so.
Later, when Ahmet takes her to see the Bosphorus Strait lit up at night, he divulges that Hamdi wants the money to buy his brother out of an army prison where he is incarcerated on drug convictions. Angela, unwell and troubled about her own brother, in an American prison for similar reasons, is vulnerable not only to Ahmet’s amorous advances but to being shaken down for the money. Will she give in? The reader feels uneasy on her behalf.
In “Tesekkur”, a seventy-three year old grandmother is holidaying in Turkey with her granddaughter, Jennifer and feeling like “an old grey rug, discardable…” because Jennifer and Mehmet, the guide are flirting. She misses her late husband, Tom, and their postings in North Africa. On this sightseeing journey they leave the car to hike through a valley and across a creek. Wet and in pain from wading the icy stream, she stays behind while the younger two go on. She decides to cross back to the other side where there are tearooms, but falls in the water. Then a kindly old Turkish man drags her to shore, dries her feet, kisses her hand and elevates her spirits with his simple human kindness. These two stories, set abroad, support openness to new experiences combined with common sense.
In two other stories, protagonists who seem at first to reliable in their perspectives, turn out not to know themselves very well. In “Key West”, fitness trainer Lara, the middle aged mother of a twenty year old son, Todd, thinks, while awaiting his plane, that she has done an “outstanding’ job of raising him. Skilfully, author MacDonald provides details that convey to us that Lara is controlling and treats Todd like a child. She has paid for the two of them to vacation in Key West during his spring break, and has scrimped on accommodation, landing them in a seedy bed-and-breakfast room with only one bed, albeit king-size. Although she knows Todd is having difficulties at college, she nags him to study and graduate in June. When his former girlfriend, Allison, turns up, Lara’s dislike of her is obvious. Though Lara hopes they won’t “fall back into lust”, readers see that the young people’s relationship was more than that. As Todd says of Allison, “She gets me”. In the end, despite a confrontation, Lara still wields the upper hand, but perhaps temporarily.
“Trains in Manmad” also has an unreliable narrator. Set in Ontario, Canada, the story opens when, Leslie, a girls’ highschool coach, returns home to find that her mother-in-law from India, Mother Gokhale, has made a mess of her kitchen. Leslie and her husband Ashok, a doctor, have been married for twenty years and have a daughter, Sheela, at university. When Leslie complains about the mess, Mother Gokhale accuses her of treating her as a stranger, and reminds her that she was pregnant when Ashok married her.
At first it seems that overburdened Leslie is justly angry at Ashok for having dumped the responsibility of his mother on her. As the story progresses, however, we learn of her that she has always had doubts about her marriage: “What was wrong now was wrong in the beginning. She had married Ashok out of necessity…Until her pregnancy she had thought of him as a place holder, the older man she went back to between other men.” Ashok, from a culture of arranged marriages, knew theirs was not based on love, but believed they were “arranging a marriage for themselves”, and could make it work. At one point, however Leslie consulted a divorce lawyer, who counselled her to wait until Ashok was promoted, so as to increase her settlement when they split up. Her lack of wholeheartedness and mercenary attitude are not endearing.
The title refers to a remote Indian railway station where she and Ashok once waited for thirty hours with their baby, a gruelling experience that crystallizes everything Leslie dislikes about him and India. When Mother Gokhale announces over dinner that she wants to live with her other son, in Orlando, Florida, Ashok’s disappointment is apparent. Alone in their bedroom later, he accuses Leslie of making her feel unwelcome. He says he wants a divorce and lies down on the floor to sleep. At that point, Leslie’s affection for him resurges, and she isn’t sure she wants the marriage to end.
Two compelling stories show male protagonists treated unjustly. In “Weekend in Baltimore”, Terrell Duncan, an African American university graduate who works for a think tank, goes with two white buddies, Sean O’Brien and Nathan Finkelstein, to a Baltimore nightclub. A tarty middle-aged dancer accuses Terrell of giving her a fake $20 (a one dollar bill with photocopied corners of a twenty pasted on.) In the dark crowded club, anyone could have done it, but she points the finger at him. Arrested and jailed, Terrell remembers the words of an old convict he met while tutoring in a prison literacy program: “It’s another world out there, college boy, that you don’t know nothing about.”
When finally allowed a phone call, Terrell calls Nathan, who finds him a lawyer. Released, Terrell turns on one of his buddies who makes a remark that he perceives as a racial slur. Can the bonds of friendship survive?
“Proud to be an American” is about another young person learning the ways of the world. Eighteen year old Billy, a carpenter’s assistant, is hungry, exhausted, in need of a dentist, lacking in family resources and badly exploited by Tom, the carpenter for whom he works. Tom is preoccupied with patenting the “Tommy Horse”, a saw horse he has invented. While the two are remodelling a store in a mall, Billy meets Rick, a young apprentice carpenter working on another construction project in the shopping centre. Rick, who is on one of his two daily half-hour breaks, is learning his trade through the union. He shows Billy his union card, qualifying him to be hired as a scaffolder anywhere in the U.S.A. On discovering that his own job is in jeopardy, Billy commits an act of passive aggression.
“Pancho Villa’s Coin”, set in 1958, has a union element, but that is not the main theme. An organizer for the Seafarers International Union is travelling with his wife and daughter in Mexico, in a story presented from the daughter’s point of view. Twelve year old Janet rides in the back seat, working on a scrapbook and travel diary. Her father is in Mexico contacting fellow trade unionists about an impending labour action involving many west coast ports. He also wants to give Janet an educational holiday – and he does! Dad has been Janet’s favourite parent because he treats her as an adult; for instance, he told her the words to “La Cucaracha”, a song in Spanish about a cockroach who is crippled because he doesn’t have marijuana to smoke. Popular during the Mexican Revolution in which Pancho Villa played a key role, this song was actually about an alcoholic right-wing president much hated by the revolutionary movement.
Gradually, the father’s boisterous, egocentric behaviour approaches the pathological. Janet’s brief diary entries don’t begin to tell what is actually going on. “Caught a sea turtle”, for example, is shorthand for an incident of drunken cruelty to an animal. The father’s violence escalates to a climax in which he seems about to turn on Janet. The recurring “Cucaracha” motif leaves us convinced that the real cockroach is Dad.
It is refreshing to encounter characters who make their livings outside the professional and academic spheres. MacDonald combines her knowledge of exotic settings and cultures with insights into the human heart to create outstanding stories. A former carpenter and editor of building magazines, with a Master’s in English and Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, she has a breadth of experience that, one hopes, she will use in creating more fiction.
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