By Light We Knew Our Names, by Anne Valente. Westland, Michigan: Dzanc Books. 200 pages. $14.95, paper.
Anne Valente’s first collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, offers up thirteen unique stories dealing with the difficult transitions from childhood to adulthood, the mystery of connection, the hardships of loss, and the crystalized moments when wonder is either abandoned or embraced.
Many of the stories contain magical elements and could be classified as slipstream or magical realism—a group of everyday girls mature into bears; a teenager’s deceased grandparents return as angels; a baby possesses the power to see the happiness unseen by adults—and in these magical moments, Valente captures the mundane and concrete interspersed with the unexplainable. In response to the fantastical elements, her everyday situations of transition, death, and divorce shine. The fact that lots of people have lost a parent doesn’t make it any less painful for the person going through it now.
Another of Valente’s talents is subverting the expected. For instance, even in a world with such fantastical elements, Valente is not necessarily saying these moments of wonder are for everybody. In the opening story “Latchkey,” Sasha, a seven-year-old girl, receives a birthday present from her parents that she expects will be “some small mystery to call her own,” like her friend’s halo of circling planets, or her other friend’s fishbowl for a stomach. Sasha carries the present around for weeks until the time is right to open it, but what builds is not just suspense, but also a trepidation about what is to come. Sasha wonders whether just having a regular present, just paisley paper and ribbon, might be enough, rather than to be gifted, quite literally, with something miraculous and unexplainable. Here we see Valente’s talent for complication: she does not just assume that all would prefer child-like wonder; she also considers the possibility that the pull to adulthood, to normalcy, might be just as strong and purposeful, and is not only to be seen as a loss.
One of the strongest stories of the collection is “Dear Amelia,” a complicated look at women’s roles, shame, and the difficulties of raising children into lives of limitation.
The conceit of the story is that a community of girls, at the start of puberty, begin to change into bears. It’s told with Amelia Earhart’s famous trip as a backdrop, a beacon to the girls that anything is possible. Through the course of the story, the girls grow from fearing their mothers, then resenting them, to finally, understanding their common ground, as revealed by Earhart’s crash:
Our mothers, as heartbroken as us. Their empty gaze, their listless silence. We knew then that they’d watched for [Amelia Earhart] too, that somewhere beneath what we’d feared in them had burned a radiating hope for a different world. We knew there was no answer beyond our mothers, and our mother’s mothers and their mothers. That this was what had always been, what they knew to do for us with the world as it was, and the undeniable threads of our blood. We wanted to ask them if we’d ever return, if there would be a time for us after every conflict had passed. But we knew at last that they didn’t know, that they couldn’t predict which way the war would go, what our nation would look like on the other side. We knew at last what they would have wanted to tell us. We knew at last that they dreamed.
Her use of the plural first-person, speaking as a group of girls rather than one, is quite effective. Rather than feeling generalized, Valente’s writing captures what it’s like to be a teenage girl, part of a larger whole, and as is important to the story, part of a pack. In her stories, Valente doesn’t simply divide groups into men or women, young or old, but looks for the commonalities in each story that create community, no matter that one might not want to be a member. There are girls with little agency, children with the power to summon a threat, teens without parents, as well as thousands of octopuses all bred for pain.
While many of the stories deal with a magical element, they are well paired with those staying within the bounds of realism; if anything, it’s the absence of the fantastical in the realistic stories that makes the honesty of them all the more gut-wrenching. In “To a Place Where We Take Flight,” a boy hopes for some magic to save him from his actual situation: his mother dying of cancer. In “Everything That Was Ours” a brother deals with the deaths of his older brother and father, as well as his fear of the Vietnam draft. In “Minivan” a man deals with the aftermath of his girlfriend’s rape. These realistic stories highlight for the reader how limited life really is without grandparents returning as tiny angels to shuffle us through to adulthood, or flashing purple orbs in the yard to keep a baby happy until realism sets in “with no flower to recall and only a world of sadness before him, its sorrows to keep like gemstones, to enfold in the pockets of his small, vast heart.”
Even so, given the darkness of some of the situations, these stories are filled in their own way with hope—of recovery, of maturity, of knowing oneself—and line-by-line, are a pleasure to read.
Erin Flanagan is the author of two short story collections published by the University of Nebraska Press:The Usual Mistakes (2005) and It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories (2013). Her fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, The Missouri Review, The Connecticut Review, the Best New American Voices anthology series, and elsewhere. She’s held fellowships to Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers’ conferences, and this summer served as faculty at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop.