Ever since reading Laura Newman’s first collection of short stories, Parallel to Paradise: Addiction and Other Love Stories, in 2014, I’ve been looking forward to more. Her new collection, The Franklin Avenue Rookery for Wayward Babies, is worth the wait.
What do I like most about Newman’s stories? She is a master of showing, not telling. I’d like to know how she can seem to be so familiar with the details of life all over the world. For example, we get to know one of the characters in “Tourette’s of the Heart” as a child in Tibet in 1950. “When winter finally breaks its back on the mountains, it is Dorje’s job to take the straw basket that forever smells of summer and walk the alleys of Lhasa looking for cloth. Any kind. A lost kerchief, a blanket on the verge of despair. Balding sheepskin. She is in competition with moths.”
Newman also seems to know exactly what nights are like for a poor girl living on the Pacific Coast of Mexico in “Sweet Nothings”: “At night Silvia most often slept outside in a hammock surrounded by the ficus and busera trees. Wild orchids reflected moonlight like monkey faces, high up in the trees. The night wind was full of the smell of the ocean, of things alive and things dead. When the wind jostled the dried palm fronds of the palapa it sounded like the whispered arguments of parents behind closed doors.”
Silvia ends up with a man who carves wooden Jesus statues and sells them at the San Ysidro border crossing. “La Pequeña Niña de Hielo, or The Little Ice Girl,” ends up at the same place in another story. On the Mexican side, “[t]here is a little house in the Canyon of the Goats, assembled from garage doors discarded in San Diego, patched together with plywood and gumption.”
The characters are as varied and as well portrayed as the settings. The protagonist in “Good as Biscotti” is a dishonest teenage girl living in Rome with an American artist, a former addict and pro bono solicitor, a “daytime lady of the night” and a parrot. A friendly vendor gives her fried eels: “It was possible I was eating mercury and sewage, but Signor Cacibauda had found a way to bread and fry the Tevere itself; he served up little pieces of the silver river.”
A girl in Scotland in the 1880s and 1890s catches and kills small animals and birds and then eats or stuffs them in “Pink Flamingos and the Good Friday Massacres.” She and her dead critters end up in Valdez, Alaska, and the story comes together a century later with a color-blind man who hopes to see the northern lights, a renowned violinist, and an indigenous woman. This story is not for squeamish animal lovers.
“The House of Naan and Saffron,” about a Christian minister and his family, begins in a Norwegian forest and ends in India. In the protagonist’s words, “I tried to recall the north and it came to me as very blue and white. India is every shade intensified. Hard to sort; you just can’t organize it like a sock drawer.”
Nothing is what it seems at first in “The Franklin Avenue Rookery for Wayward Babies” in New Orleans. In “Silver,” we follow an Iowa boy into Italy in World War II.
Two of the stories are set in the recent past in Northern Nevada, where Newman lives. “Swisher Sweets” is about an ex-husband who had lost his arm at Sand Mountain as a boy and an attempt to disperse his ashes by swimming across Lake Tahoe that doesn’t go as planned. “I threw away the suit. Who wants that memory? Then I realized that part of Ben was in the garbage too.” “The Color of Fisticuffs and Bloodlines” begins and ends in Japan, but most of it is set in Northern Nevada. The characters and situations in each story fall into place in a satisfying, not always predictable way. I couldn’t ask for anything more, and I am already looking forward to Newman’s next collection!