Red Ant House
Short stories--good short stories--touch you somewhere. When they hit your funny bone, like David Sedaris' crazy little quips, the word gods smile because a good humor writer is hard to find. And when they smack you in the head with addictive sensory overload--and sheer volume--like Joyce Carol Oates, the publishing gods get a hard-on. But when a short story has you in a combination stranglehold of almost visceral empathy and slight confusion, the contemporary-writer gods are simply relieved at a job well done.
Ann Cummins' tight little bundle of a debut collection, Red Ant House, holds so many moments ripe with emotion that it is almost an injustice to read straight through. The story "Blue Fly," set in "a prime spot in the southern lowlands, just where the Rockies tapered into flatlands," sheds light on an orphaned brother and sister getting by in 1903. Madison, 14, and his younger sister Sadie live with their absent older brother's young crazy wife in the shoddy dirt foundation that was once the beginnings of a home. Sadie rips the sleeve of her one school dress, the wife overpickles beef until blue flies threaten to take over the putrid-smelling home, and none seems to harbor hope that the older brother will ever come back.
"Blue Fly" hits hard. Perhaps you weren't the child who called to an older sibling, "Wait! Wait for me!" on the way to school, but you probably remember feeling so aware of yourself that you might burst unless given an opportunity to do something--anything--to make your presence felt. Both Sadie's dependence on Madison and Madison's struggle for independence are parts of childhood, but they hurt just the same.
Although children are not at the center of every Red Ant House story, Cummins has a knack for illustrating the childhood feelings of isolation in a world that doesn't pay enough attention. In "Crazy Yellow," an 8-year-old boy deals with his cancer-stricken mother, who thinks she has left him in the charge of an aunt. But he doesn't call his aunt, and Cummins follows closely as the boy navigates a night alone. We are inside his head as he remembers his now-absent father's words and his mother's strong influence; he is a strong little kid. The story seems to drop off an edge at the end, however--until it settles in the mind and you just get it: the fears the boy feels, both unfounded and completely justified.
Put down Red Ant House for awhile between stories, to let what is going on in them and how they have hit you sink in. And then they hurt really good.