Small-town Characters Drive “Wings & Other Things”
February 6, 2023
Story endings can be famously tricky to land, with Hemingway once claiming he wrote 39 different endings to A Farewell to Arms. Yet, when the writer Chauna Craig delves into the messy lives of her female protagonists, the resolution happens so effortlessly it can feel like sleight of hand. The Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor’s latest collection of short stories, Wings & Other Things, is dexterous writing that entertains by not straying into the formulaic. Instead, she showcases characters grounded in their small-town realities, letting the satisfying complexities unfold naturally.
In the collection’s closing story, “Big Sky Blue,” Craig uses her hometown, Great Falls, Montana as the backdrop for romantic entanglements gone sideways. It’s just after the Cuban Missile Crisis when Francine Linton is preparing for some hasty nuptials to Airman Scott Berrian, both of them unready teens. Foreshadowing ensues when Francine says “‘I don’t know.’ I could hear my voice at a distance — hollow, robotic. I was scared and didn’t know why, except that I had a feeling I would never see Scott again.” With the effective use of flash-forwards, readers will see how that fateful day turns for Francine.
In “The Empty Set,” setting looms as the unnamed teenaged narrator learns the ropes of recovery at a rehab facility tucked in the Arizona desert, hours away from anything. Working as a cleaning lady, the young woman with her own baggage shares, “… They hired me because I knew what I was getting into.” The irony comes as she explains her qualifications to her boss: “‘I know — because my drunk father almost killed my mother — that ‘substance abuse’ means that a person who’s never had a drop of alcohol herself might end up needing a full-time job right out of high school so she can be home to help her mom get into bed at night and out in the morning, at least until her father gets out of jail and we can pretend everything is back to normal.’” Her interactions with Rainn, a longtime resident, prove meaningful as the narrator’s hopes for the future gets distilled into one talismanic glass bead she finds while cleaning.
In the title story, Anya “thought she was haunted” but instead finds the sound that’s been disturbing her is “the sound of wings stirring air, a soft, flapping smack on brick.” The swifts who’ve taken up residence in her chimney become an omen for the unfulfilled life she’s afraid to confront. The tension rises as the birds remain, leaving her to tape a plastic bag over the fireplace as she listens to “the draft sucking the bag back, then expanding it again, like a dark lung, the house breathing.” It’s the poetic moments that make this collection feel alive with characters who are often stuck between thought and action. This pensiveness comes alive when Anya quotes her grandmother’s folksy sayings: “Her Pittsburgh grandmother would say, Bird in the house means death. Her Morgantown grandmother would say, Angels come in all disguises.” It’s left to readers to discern who might be right.
Though the fabulist “To Taste” and “Teresa of Pierce County, Nebraska” feel less immediate, they work as a change of pace. However, it’s “Harm’s Way” that best displays the subtle force in Craig’s writing. The story’s action follows the hard-of-hearing Bette on her way to meet her boyfriend in Joplin, Missouri. She’s driving “kitsch in the form of a Gremlin, old rusting car with a Swiss cheese muffler, and it’s no surprise she doesn’t hear the water pump go as she’s cruising down I-29, singing with Tom Jones that Labor Day weekend.” While that set-up feels like the beginning of a thriller, the payoff is much richer. And like the stories in Wings & Other Things, the destination satisfies as much as the journey.