Reviewed by Ruth Latta
We Will Tell You Otherwise
by Beth Mayer
Black Lawrence Press
ISN: 987-1-62557-002-4, Paperback, Aug 2019
Beth Mayer, who has a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing, and teaches English at Century College in Minnesota, has had many stories published in literary magazines and anthologies. We Will Tell You Otherwise, her first book, will be released in August 2019.
In this collection of sixteen stories, (seven published previously,) Ms. Mayer shows her versatility in form and subject matter. “Darling, Won’t You Tell Me True?” is presented in epistolary form. “Let Her Tell the Way” has footnotes, a hallmark of metafiction. “What We Tell Ourselves”, like William Faulkner’s famous story, “A Rose for Emily”, is unique in being presented in the first person plural. Other stories are unique because of their point of view, such as “Please Tell Your Beautiful Secret”, from the point of view of the angel of death. The very short story, “The Ghost of L.L. Bowser Tells What Really Went Down”, is told by a ghost who cannot rest because he spent his life “shuttling barrels of caustic poison from here to there…for another man’s profit and another man’s purpose.”
“But I Will Tell You Otherwise,” the title story, is mostly dramatized, but the narrator sometimes addresses the reader directly to tell them something. For instance, she says, of her girlhood friend, “Together we crossed the perilous bridge that spans being a girl and being a woman. Who can travel this alone? No one should have to. It is the most dangerous terrain.”
The narrator, Janie, meets her companion on this perilous journey when her aunt sends her over to the new neighbours with the gift of homemade pie. She is greeted by Cha Cha, who impresses her with her directness. Both girls have burdens to bear. Janie lives with her aunt because her mother drove her car off a cliff, killing herself and Janie’s father and younger brother. An accident? Janie wonders. Cha Cha is neglected by her family. Her mother naps away most days with her infant twin boys while her mother’s boyfriend. Eventually they pack up and move, leaving her behind.
One of the girls’ favourite activities is standing outside the home of a reclusive woman, wondering what is going on inside and looking at the jars of coloured water that the woman has arranged on her picnic table. Cha Cha is the first to divulge to Janie that the woman is rumoured to have been the town whore, patronized by prominent local men who are husbands and fathers. The adult Janie informs us that “a smart woman who knows her own pleasure in a town full of foolish men and frigid women is necessarily under great suspicion.” The lady liked quiet, her own company, and good music.
Janie and Cha Cha are pursued by a young husband and father who drives along the street beside them offering them rides in his truck. Cha Cha, who has already been taken for a ride by him, tells him to drive his truck straight to hell. When events put this man in a position of power over Cha Cha, Janie commits a crime to save her friend and gets away with it. In the end, we are presented with an image of Cha Cha in a red silk dress, “becoming as she was”, a phrase that suggests not only that she is pretty and that she is fulfilling her promise, but also that she’s fine as she is.
All the story titles involve some form of the verb, “to tell”, because the collection as a whole is about the things people tell themselves and others. Some characters tell themselves the truth and live authentically; others do not. In “But I Will Tell You Otherwise,” Janie and Cha Cha defy social mores and pressures and think for themselves.
The first story in the collection, “Don’t Tell Your Mother” reminded me of “Indian Camp” from Ernest Hemingway’s classic collection, In Our Time. Each involves a medical emergency in which a doctor father’s calm professionalism reassures the son and helps him come to terms with life’s cruelty and tragedy. In Hemingway’s story the boy has come with his father to deliver a baby in the Michigan woods, while in Mayer’s story the father has taken his ten year old boy smelt fishing in Lake Michigan near Chicago. Most of the fishermen they meet are disadvantaged, as are the indigenous people in Hemingway’s story. In Mayer’s story a man is attacked and the father saves his life.
“It took nine minutes for the ambulance to get there and my father told the paramedics they sure took their sweet time. He would not take his hands out of Georgie Pie [he was stopping abdominal bleeding], not until there was a stretcher under Georgie Pie’s back and a needle in his arm.”
Near the end the boy says: “I wanted to tell my father how glad I was for the night, how good it felt to save somebody.” Both Hemingway and Mayer write of
father-son bonding, but in Mayer’s story the outcome is more positive and just as realistic. .
“Let Her Tell the Way” is a strong story, set in 1978, about a woman named Peggy who moves out of her comfort zone to free her family from her controlling, passive-aggressive husband, Frank. Frank takes the initiative in planning vacation trips, doing extensive research, looking through brochures with his wife and children and planning an itinerary. Then, at the last minute, he can’t go and everyone stays home. The family is excited about a car trip to Niagara Falls when Frank, manager of a funeral home, insists that he must stay home to handle an important funeral instead of leaving it to a perfectly capable colleague. To apologize, he buys his wife a new station wagon.
Angry and disappointed Peggy feels that she and Frank are “no longer allies.” Hints of her growing assertiveness appear. She is part of a women’s group that seems to involve consciousness raising, and she is earning some money of her own by selling cosmetics. She decides they will go without Frank. As she packs the car, Frank tries to worry her about the ten hour drive. Does she have the Automobile Association of America phone number and his elaborate itinerary which includes specific fast food restaurants en route.
The trip starts out inauspiciously. The children bicker, and when Peggy departs from Frank’s restaurant and accommodation plans, the results are unsatisfactory. Her ten year old son identifies closely with his dad and insists on rigid conformity to the itinerary, which her sixteen year old daughter Tiffany destroys accidentally-on-purpose. Peggy finds her daughter “infuriating” and “fascinating” and does not want “to lose her or be lost to her” . During the trip, Tiffany tests the limits but emerges as her mother’s ally. Faced with a crisis, Peggy reasons her way through it and makes a sensible decision that pleases both her son and daughter. When Peggy reflects that there are “countless ways to save your children”, one senses that she will help hers fight the strictures of the “Father-Knows-Best” family.
The use of footnotes, as in “Let her Tell the Way”, borrows from academic research and disrupts the narrative. Some authors, like Mark Haddon, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, use them to show the thought processes of his autistic narrator. Some writers use footnotes to provide supplementary information or to comment on the story itself, as in The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. In other works, footnotes may be used to show that the author is controlling the reader’s experience. The footnotes in “Let her Tell the Way” provide information that could have been briefly inserted into the story itself, and which readers could have figured out from the context. Possibly Ms Mayer includes footnotes, then, because they provide unnecessary detail, just as Frank’s itinerary does. They convey how oppressive, distracting and irritating his precise planning is.
“Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” is about a daughter whose father’s version of their family life is quite different from how she remembers it. For her father’s seventieth birthday, to “be a good daughter”, Frances decides to rise above “unresolved resentment” and take him camping. The camp brings back her unhappy memories of a childhood vacation when her father was especially manipulative and bullying. Listening to him now, she realizes he sounds like the ideal TV sit-com dad, until she realizes that he is losing his mind. Happily demented, he has forgotten his infidelities, his divorce and his wife’s early death and imagines that his children are little, and that they are all together on a family vacation. Though angry at his escape from negative memories, she comes to see his impaired mental state in a new light. Her epiphany and her use of fiction at the end to persuade him to comply with her wishes are interesting, but the idea of the elderly parent losing his wits is overused in contemporary fiction, just as death from consumption was overused in Victorian times.
While I liked some stories more than others, I know that a writer can’t please all of the people all of the time. The stories in We Will Tell You Otherwise are varied enough to have something for everyone.
Ruth Latta’s new novel, Votes, Love and War, will be published in 2019. Her most recently published novel, Grace in Love, is available at firstname.lastname@example.org