A couple of the 10 stories in Jim Shepard’s fifth collection occur in today’s world, but most are historical fiction. They take place in 16th-Century BC Crete; in 19th-Century America, Australia, and the Arctic; in 18th-Century France; and in the mid-20th-Century off the Maine coast. It’s no secret that Shepard does considerable research for his stories – four pages of acknowledgments attest to that. Shepard insists he enjoys the research and some fine stories come of it, but is all that fact-finding worth it for the sake of verisimilitude? After all, that lord of the historical novel, E. L. Doctorow, once claimed he “just made it up” as he went along.
This collection’s title story, “The World to Come,” selected for “Best American Short Stories 2013,” is told in diary form by Nellie, a housewife in rural New York in 1856. She records life with her near-stoic husband, their neighbors, and especially with her friend Tallie, revealing “emotions or fears, our greatest joys or most piercing sorrows.” Her diary begins in January. There’s deep snow and bitter cold, with ice even inside the farmhouse. Their daughter, also named Nellie, died at 2 1/2. Nellie, the mother, has heard reports that men have been killing their wives, so she becomes suspicious when Tallie leaves unexpectedly.
“Cretan Love Song” re-imagines a scene from around 1600 BC, when the volcanic island Thera erupted. The brief story depicts a father who is about to lose his wife and son and his own life in the wake of the eruption. It’s a fine story, really, a vignette that stands sturdy as a poignant scene. Verisimilitude is important, but – four resources for a three-page story?
“Intimacy,” is a story about three women, Gladys, Iris and Nellie in late-19th century Australia. A violent, racist, and misogynistic country, also subjected to kooinars, “the great wind that flattened trees and turned the country into an inland sea.” Gladys and her new husband try to make a home in Barrow Point, Queensland, having traveled the arduous journey from Brisbane. Iris arrived in Brisbane, from Ireland, without any family, determined to make a trip 400 more miles north to Rockhampton, even though she was warned “if she didn’t die of malaria … that would simply leave more for the crocodiles...” Nellie, who already lived in Queensland, becomes a successful landowner and shepherd in a business dominated by men. But everyone’s biggest challenge is facing a cyclone with winds of about 140 mph and walls of water 70 feet high and trying to fashion their future.
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We’re taken to the to the North Atlantic coast near Maine in the late ’50s and early ’60s in “Safety Tips for Living Alone.” There, Air Force personnel and civilian specialists try to maintain a “Texas Tower.” So-called because they look like oil rigs, Texas Towers were radar stations in the ocean used to detect incoming Russian bombers. Since evacuating the tower would make it prey for Russian spy trawlers, all personnel on Tower No. 4 are forced to ride out Hurricane Donna and another coming storm.
Lieutenant Edward Little, through his journal, narrates the mid-19th-Century voyage of the HMS Terror in a story of the same name. The Terror, along with the Erebus, is charged with finding a route north of the American continents to India. In “Telemachus,” Fisher’s submarine, patrols the Indian Ocean in 1942 with orders to spot and engage any enemy flotilla. And in another story, set in 18th-Century France, two brothers, Jacques-Étienne and Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, invent the hot-air balloon.
Shepard’s stories are well-crafted and entertaining, but when you know about all the research this writer undertakes, you might find yourself sometimes distracted and Googling things like Professor Halford’s snakebite, and was Ben Franklin really in France to watch a hot-air balloon take flight? Still, you can enjoy the fictional fruits of those facts as much as Shepard enjoys looking and writing them up.
“The World to Come”
By Jim Shepard
Knopf, 272 pages