Short & Sweet: At the Owl Woman Saloon, by Tess Gallagher

Welcome to the March edition of Short & Sweet, my feature dedicated to short fiction.  This is my third month reading short stories, mostly at bedtime.  At this rate I can read a book a month, and mixing stories with full-length books works well for me. This month I read At the Owl Woman Saloon, which I ran out and bought after it was featured in Belletrista.

At the Owl Woman Saloon has 16 stories set primarily in the Northwestern United States.  Some deal with people who work in logging, a major regional industry, but themes of aging and widowhood a paramount.  Like most short story collections, some stories spoke to me in very direct ways, and stood out from the rest:

  • The Leper: this story recounts everyday events for a couple living in a seaside village.  Gallagher captures a moment in time without attempting to tie up loose ends.  The woman takes a phone call from a distraught friend.  Funeral flowers are mistakenly delivered to her home.  She watches horses swimming in the sea.  Small, ordinary and yet extraordinary occurrences all beautifully portrayed.
  • Coming and Going: Emily, recently widowed, is visited by a deputy Marshall looking for her husband regarding a legal dispute.  She directs him to where her husband has “relocated.”  I could feel her pain while also laughing out loud at her deception.
  • Mr Woodriff’s Neckties: A man observes his neighbors as one of them declines and eventually passes away.  A good deed brings a sense of calm.  I loved this story; it made me think about mortality and the importance of enjoying today because you never know what the future holds:

On Sundays I see her gathering these same roses, now that they’ve bloomed, to take to the cemetery. It makes me wonder if they both knew while they were planting them that this was out there in the future. Or maybe they were so involved with earth and root balls and whether the holes were deep enough that they didn’t trouble to think ahead, except that eventually there would be roses. Maybe their minds were mercifully clear of the future.  That’s what I hope, anyway.  (p. 148)

  • The Woman who Prayed:  the book ends with this powerful story of a woman who discovers her husband is having an affair, and handles the situation in a unique and admirable way.

Gallagher is first a poet, which is clear in her beautiful prose.  More than characters or plot, her stories are best appreciated by letting her words, imagery and metaphor wash over you.

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Next month I’ll be reading The Thing Around your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Watch for the next installment of  Short & Sweet!

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