Lost Girls: short stories
by Ellen Birkett Morris
TouchPoint Press, June 24, 2020
140 Pages, $13.99
Lost Girls is the debut story collection from Louisville, Kentucky-based, award-winning author, Ellen Birkett Morris. She is the winner of the Bevel Summers Prize for Short Fiction and the recipient of a 2013 Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council. Morris’s poetry debut, Surrender, from Finishing Line Press, is a spiritual ancestor to Lost Girls.
The seventeen short stories in this collection feature women and girls from all walks of life, the way they survive aging, loneliness, the loss of a child, failing marriages, growing up, falling in and out of love, family disintegration, and loss.
It’s only about two-thirds of the way through the stories, that I realized that it was a linked collection. I was surprised. While several stories mention Slocum, Ohio, or are set directly in the unincorporated community, it didn’t strike me that these characters were all living in the same time and place together. Lydia from “Fear of Heights” is mentioned in one of the beginning stories, “Harvest”, and Tony plays a crucial role in the story, but I had no idea I would be reading their story later on in the collection. It was a welcome surprise, as I felt that some of the stories weren’t enough to really sink my teeth into at the time. They felt more like beginnings than endings.
I sometimes wished Birkett Morris would linger in her stories more, give us more than quick snapshots. Possibly that’s just the desire of all short story readers—that we can have the “other side” of the story told, so to say.
The eponymous story, “Lost Girls”, begins the collection with an inhaled breath. It establishes what we’ll be reading throughout the collection—a story about a girl named Dana who is snatched as a child, and the people she left behind who have to navigate the world around her absence. The narrator—who is never named, but we are told is five years older than the lost girl—observes the years after Dana is taken from the community:
I can’t seem to forget her. Each birthday, I do a quick calculation comparing her would-be age to my own. Every few years, I come here and leave something for Dana— tampons, an old set of car keys, a graduation cap. She’ll be 21 this year.
She lives her life unable to forget Dana, wondering why she wasn’t taken instead, counting milestones for a girl gone nearly ten years. “Lost Girls” sets us up for the rest of the collection, where we’ll be looking at the other girls who were left in Dana’s wake.
There’s a shallowness to some of the characters, even with the depth of the topics the stories cover, which can be unsatisfying for a reader. There’s very little satisfaction to be found between the pages of “Lost Girls”, which might be a testament to the time and setting the stories take place in. It’s hard to live in a community so small and interconnected, especially in the 70s and 80s when most of the collection takes place, when you have no privacy and your neighbors watch your every move.
I looked up “Slocum” when the town’s name first appeared in the collection, but Google found no results. It wasn’t until another story mentioned Cincinnati that I thought to look up “Slocum, Ohio”, which was when I learned that the town truly did exist. It’s one of the many unincorporated communities that make up the state of Ohio. Small and isolated, set in its ways and a little behind the times, Slocum is an isolated community in this series of stories that becomes a character of its own, always hovering in the background and waiting to take the characters in. It doesn’t want to give any of them up, and even when they do leave, it always manages to pull them back in.
Within Lost Girls, there’s a stark disconnect between mothers and daughters. They almost always have dysfunctional relationships, if the mom is still alive. The mothers of Lost Girls seem to be lost themselves—whether through death, or loss, or an inability to connect to their daughters and husbands and dead sons. Fathers are often dead as well, or distant and secretive. Marriages are, more often than not, unsatisfying and ultimately break.
Characters visibly struggle to find themselves in these stories, whether that self is a woman with a dead child, or a woman whose relationship has broken down, or a woman who decides she wants no children, no marriage, no partner at all. As Hannah tells it in “Kodachrome,”
I was plain old Hannah Starnes with dirty blond hair and long legs that make me look like a stork. If only I could get a picture that showed my true colors.
She, much like every other woman and girl in Lost Girls, is looking for her true colors: the thing about herself that’s hidden from even her own eyes. Hannah thinks she can only find it by being photographed, but once she sees her photo years later, it’s “smaller than [she] thought it would be”. She never gets to see her true colors because the picture is in black and white. “Kodachrome” is from the first-person perspective of the main character, Hannah, with one single instance of third person point of view from the cameraman Jasper Macks, in the middle. It’s an interesting insertion. The story is about different forms of voyeurism, and Jasper’s perspective is in reaction to being forced to become a voyeur by Hannah. It was one of the stories with the most interesting use of point of view.
I felt myself most drawn to “Fear of Heights” and “Swimming,” the last story of the collection. In “Fear of Heights”, we watch the actual story of Allison, Lydia, and Tony that’s only passingly mentioned as gossip in “Harvest.” We walk with Allison and Lydia as they meet and fall in love, we feel Tony’s anguish as he realizes Allison won’t be coming back. There’s passion between the lines of this story, ones that whet my desire to know more.
That night in bed, Allison imagined herself and Lydia intertwined, pressed hard against the rail, while in the forest below, tiny fires burned away, leaving bare, dark ground.
Allison and Lydia’s budding romance is so passionate, so fiery, that it makes the reader feel even worse for Tony, who does nothing “wrong” and is painfully blindsided by his wife Allison’s betrayal and leaving. Especially knowing what we do, about his last years in a retirement home. At the same time, you want Allison and Lydia to be together and happy, which they very much are. It’s such a complicated story that answers questions left by “Harvest”.
“Fear of Heights” continues with the third person point of view, but it’s split between the three characters, Allison, Lydia, and Tony, navigating their perspectives on the destruction and formation of their relationships between each other. This switching of point of view is only repeated in “Swimming.”
“Swimming” is, I think, the only way Morris could have ended the collection. It stars a constellation of characters who were in the background in other stories. This story hints at the lives being lived outside of each narrative that the characters wander in and out of and gives some of the most stunning detail in the collection.
Her father’s body was like the shell of a cicada—a hull, no life, no sound, his eyes empty and already starting to dry up. (129)
Most notably is the contrast between Huck Starnes and Annette Allen: how they lost their virginities, how they handled parenthood, how they saw one another, how they aged.
Then there were the magic days when, as a toddler, Hannah would sit on his lap and study him, running her small fingers over the tiny hairs on his nose, pulling at his earlobes, looking inside his ear as if the secrets of the world were there. (130)
Her child would stop and say, ‘Hi, Mom’ and act embarrassed when Annette smoothed down her hair. But no one stopped. The kids just walked on by, and she returned to the library, where she’d walk down the rows of books, placing each one in exactly the right spot so it could be discovered. (131)
The two characters observe one another from a distance at the start, but by the end of the story, they expose to the reader the intimate details they know of each another that the other couldn’t possibly know. Huck had secretly watched Annette bathe in her tub on several occasions, thinking himself to be safe from her gaze, but Annette both knew about and had no qualms with his voyeurism.
That’s what Lost Girls feels the most like to me. A view into these private moments of wonder and desperation and desire and grief. Small windows into this interconnected community of girls and women and the tragedies and triumphs of their lives. We so often don’t get to experience the minutiae that make up a person’s life, the slow days and the shows they watched on television, the small things that come together and make a person who they are. Lost Girls shows us that we can revel in those moments, tender and fraught as they may be.