Seth Hahne's Reviews > Squirrel Mother

Squirrel Mother by Megan Kelso
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Aug 02, 12

bookshelves: comics

The Squirrel Mother by Megan Kelso
[Note: She's not talking about poison.]

I'm pretty sure that most anthologies deveIop as a platform for a couple great shorter works and then other stories are included to pad the length and justify a bound compilation. That padding, to my mind, generally just gets in the way and diminishes from my overall enjoyment of the collection. Still, I can see why a consumer might be more inclined to shell out for a book of nine stories of varying quality than for one of just three solid efforts. Even at this, the highest point of civilized sophistication and critical knowledge,* consumers still mistake quantity for quality. I wanted to take a break from reviewing collections of short works because I felt like I was essentially saying the same thing over and over again: "This anthology was a mix of better stories and worse stories. I would have liked it more had the balance tipped more toward better stories and I would have liked it less had the balance tipped more toward worse stories." That's my general feeling toward collections and if I got bored writing that over and again, I was certain that you were bored reading it.

The problem is that 1) that meant I wasn't talking about books that deserved to be talked about and 2) a worthwhile review (to me) is less about whether something is good, okay, or bad and more a discussion of other aspects of a work. And so, are there things to talk about in regard to Megan Kelso's The Squirrel Mother beyond the fact that some of the stories are better than others? Yes, there are. So let's do that.

While The Squirrel Mother is mostly concerned with small pericopes drawn from the lives of young women and girls, far and away my favourite segment was a series of short reflections recapitulating the life and times of Alexander Hamilton. In the first, a girl explores in an essay the interactions and relationship between Hamilton and James Madison, focusing on their collaboration on "Publius." And when I say she explores their relationship, I really just mean that she ships them hard. It's an amusing way to get across the dynamic of their work and eventual falling out. In the next story another girl (or perhaps the same, but older), her indignation inflamed by a teacher's earlier recountment of Hamilton's death from dueling Vice President Burr, launches on the subway into a telling of the Duel That Should Have Happened: Hamilton vs. Jefferson at twenty paces. So exciting is her proposition that her fellow commuters exit the station to reenact that very scene. And in the third and final act in the series, an old woman presents a speech detailing Hamilton's friendship with Washington and Washington's recruitment of a young Hamilton during the Revolutionary War. Enlisted as an aide-de-camp, Hamilton quickly began to influence Washington with his political and strategic acumen. In each of these stories, the narrating female blurs the line between admiration and infatuation, turning appreciation into romance in a charming sort of way. Kelso's Hamiltonian tales are the high-point of the collection and may function as sort of a proto-Beaton treatment of the historical. I would absolutely read an entire book by Kelso, devoted to Hamilton and written in this manner: humourous, educational, engaging—saying perhaps as much about Kelso as it does about Hamilton himself.

The Squirrel Mother by Megan Kelso
[Oh, Alex. You're basically right out of a Decemberists song]

The rest of her stories (I say that as if they are all cut from similar cloth, which isn't accurate) all demonstrate a careful attention to the mundane moments that constitute the grand panorama of a person's life. I obviously preferred some of these stories to others, but recognizable in each was a certain kind of existential patience, an ability to focus on that which might otherwise escape attention. One wordless piece extends only so long as the duration of a family slideshow. Each page is comprised of four equally sized panels, one of which is a Kodachrome slide featuring some aspect of the family vacation. The intervening three panels may depict all the uncaptured moments to which each slide alludes in the imaginations/memories of the family members. These are a sweet several pages, and while the story's purpose may be slight, it's a lyrical presentation and novel idea. Another story, of two girls learning to waltz, invokes images of 2001: A Space Odyssey as a mother retreats happily to her imagination. A highlight of Kelso's storytelling in that piece is in her drawn exploration of how in a waltz the dancers should find themselves within the flow of music as if in a gentle river. It's a beautiful use of visual metaphor.

The Squirrel Mother by Megan Kelso

One curiosity is the book's title: The Squirrel Mother. It's also the name of the collection's first story, which is I presume the reason the book inherited the title. I'm rarely sure of the wisdom of naming a collection after its first story (or even of naming it after a particular story from a collection). My favourite short story collection, Murakami's Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is also named for its initial story and that has always bothered me. The story is not indicative of what else fills that book. It's not representative and it doesn't relate. Though they're lesser collections, I much prefer titles such as After the Quake (also by Murakami) and Nocturnes (by Ishiguro). These are indicators of what awaits the reader, clues as to what lurks within the books' pages. Choosing a name for a collection is difficult, of course, but rewards I think both the author and the reader, giving a better hook for approaching and understanding the works collected. This is really a trivial complaint and doesn't affect my opinion of Kelso's book save for in the least consequential of ways. I was just disappointed that 1) "Squirrel Mother" was far from my favourite story here collected and 2) it wasn't indicative of some of the great pieces that Kelso elected to include.

The Squirrel Mother by Megan KelsoCamping sucks, ammirite?

As mentioned, The Squirrel Mother, like the vast majority of anthologies is a mix of strong and weak stories. Save for the rambunctious, exciting Alexander Hamilton bits (which really won my heart), Kelso's stories seem quiet, reflective pieces more intended to invoke a mood, a feeling, or an era than to pursue any great narrative purpose. Some readers will enjoy and some won't. It pays to be aware of what kind of a reader you are before you choose whether to approach Kelso's work. If you need closure and dislike a story that abruptly ends without resolution, then The Squirrel Mother may likely only frustrate you. If you enjoy spending a little time among characters with whom you'll never share more than a transient acquaintance, then The Squirrel Mother may be just the book to take in over lunch one day. If you like Alexander Hamilton at all, then Kelso's book demands a place on your shelf.**

Notes
* I'm being funny here. While I think that in many ways criticism has access to a wider breadth of theory and critical tools than at any other point in recognized history, critics are still just people who are swayed by their biases and hampered by their ignorances. And consumers still regard critics with suspicion, aware that for all their pronouncements, critics are just as governed by their tastes as consumers are—and the average consumer is more aware of the fact that tastes don't reflect any objective aesthetic rule.

** The Hamilton stuff is that good.

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[Review courtesy of Good Ok Bad]
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