Down on the Sidewalk: Stories About Children and Childhood from the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction
Edited by Ethan Laughman
University of Georgia Press, March 1, 2020
254 pages, $24.95
At no point is there a question of quality when it comes to Down on the Sidewalk. All fifteen short stories received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction between the years of 1989 and 2016, and it shows in the prose work on every page. These are all stories that deserve to be in anthologies, that should be read in classrooms.
The University of Georgia Press has published several themed collections comprised of Flannery O’Connor award winners over the past few years: on death, sports, holidays. I was drawn, of course, to this particular collection because of its theme: stories about children and childhood. It’s a hard topic to write, especially hard to write well.
But there’s a certain pleasure in reading stories about children that’re written for adults. We’re able to see the things that the child protagonists could never have foreseen. We see in the protagonists our own lost innocence, we experience by proxy the freedom to be a child again.
There’s a charming, rambling nature to a child’s thought process that’s echoed in these fabulous stories. Their thoughts so often flit from subject to subject, like butterflies landing on flowers to sip nectar before moving on again. These authors deftly navigate between the randomness of a child’s thoughts and the straightforward narrative necessary to keep a reader’s attention.
There’s magic, too, in this collection. Children are ripe with magic, not yet jaded by science and facts and the rest of society telling them magic isn’t real. They believe in most things they’re told; in everything they see. Maybe that’s why so many of us cling to narratives about childhood. We long for that time when magic was still available to us, real as the ant bites we collected on our ankles.
It’s hard to pinpoint a “favorite” story in this collection; they’re all prize-winners for a reason. Do you choose the stark loneliness of C. M. Mayo’s “Majesty”? Or the brutality of Melinda Moustakis’ “Us Kids”? The mystery of Paul Rawlin’s “Boys”? The bleakness of Antonya Nelson’s “Cold Places”?
I must admit to a fondness for both “Fort Arden” by Carole L. Glickfeld and “From Where I Sit” by Nancy Zafris. Maybe it’s because I see a bit of my own childhood in between the lines.
Glickfeld’s Ruthie is brash and stubborn, used to defending herself and her parents, who the town pities since they’re both deaf-mutes. There’s an eschewing of traditional gender roles with Ruthie to the point I didn’t know she was a she until her name was spoken. Her covert queerness also spoke to me —she’s always aware of where her best friend Glory is, no matter what games they’re playing.
“The rain came down like Niagara Falls. In a few minutes she and I were drenched. I could see Glory’s underpants through her dress.”
Ruthie is a keen observer of things which she might not have ever been aware of, had she not been raised by people who have to communicate visually instead of orally, had she not been so different from her peers. She looks at things around her in a way that’s far too grown-up for her age, even if she doesn’t necessarily know why she’s looking. The observation of Glory’s underwear might seem overtly sexual, but we have to remember that these children protagonists don’t understand the context of their actions yet. It was like watching my younger self through the pages.
Zafris presents a very different protagonist in “From Where I Sit.” Zafris never names the young girl who narrates the events of the story—instead we are given excruciating detail about her life. Her mother, whom she adores and tries to emulate; her father, whose very name strikes fear in the whole family; the sister obsessed with The Beatles and her two best friends. Everyone else around this protagonist is named other than her. She is the observer—through the glazed gazes often given to the disabled, through being the youngest child, through not fitting in.
“I watched them drive away, trouble and wild moods and frantic adolescent love on the horizon for my sister, and what for me? Could I sense already that my future contained a procession of humble pleasures which would give more joy to others than to me? That I would be expected to feel my reward from their small kindnesses, to blush tearfully at their prizes or compliments? That warm regard and gratitude were my province, and that the more alarming passions would not be mine?”
The narrator ends her story with all these questions, unsure of her future, even when we get a glimpse earlier in the story into her graduation from law school. Questions any child forced to grow up before their time asks themselves over and over, even into adulthood.
It’s difficult to review a collection of stories that have already each won such a prestigious prize, even outside of the two I personally connected with. The newest short story, Anne Raeff’s “Maximiliano”, won in 2016. The oldest is Carole L. Glickfeld’s “Fort Arden”, which won the prize in 1989. All of these stories have had years, decades in some cases, to garner praise and criticism. They don’t need me to tell you they’re good, that they should be read, because they already won prestigious awards telling you they’re good and should be read.
What I think is more interesting, more relevant to talk about, is the structure of the collection as a whole. Why these fifteen stories? Why this order? Surely there have been more than just these stories about children or childhood that have won the Flannery O’Connor award. It’s existed since 1983. Sixty-two short story collections or novellas have been selected over the course of the award, and these fifteen stories were chosen for this anthology over any others.
The narratives vacillate between first person and a close third, although the last three stories are all in first. These three all deal with a transition away from childhood and into memory; the narrators tell about their childhoods. There’s a vast chasm of time between childhood and the narrators of these last stories. A distance that’s obviously not there in the first two-thirds of the collection. It’s evident the collection’s editor, Ethan Laughman, has a clear progression he wanted the anthology to take. From stories set in the moments of childhood through to children on the cusp of adolescense, to the stories of adults thinking back on the moments that changed their childhoods. There’s a desperate reach back for childhood that comes through in the last third of the collection, starting with Amina Gautier’s “Held” and ending with Kellie Wells’ “My Guardian, Claire”—a longing for a time less complicated, less fraught.
Eight of fifteen stories are about a pair of children. A sort of “us against the world” mentality. Four have a whole group of them. One features a singular child amidst a sea of adults. There are two deaf characters, and one character with a disabled body. One teen mother. At least two ghosts. Two queer-coded children. There are brown bodies and white.
When looking at the makeup of the authors, eleven of the authors are women, while four are men. Twelve are white, one is Jewish, two are black. Not nearly enough diversity there, but that might be more a statement on the part of the award committee than the editor’s choices.
If we put aside the statistics and the accolades, we’re presented with fifteen very finely crafted narratives from the past thirty-one years. You can see some similarities of language within these stories which shows what the selection committee for the award is interested in, the same descriptions and imagery. If you look at the first and last lines of each story, what do they tell you? What do you see? Only Dana Johnson’s “Hot Pepper” and Amina Gautier’s “Held” are written in vernacular, but those are the two last lines that stick with me the hardest:
“Jonelle said I was looking all crazy and mad. Prolly. But it seem like, as hard as I was jumping rope, doing them hot peppers, my heart just wasn’t in it.” (Johnson’s “Hot Pepper”)
“The baby reached for her hair and Kim laughed, feeling like the two of them were the only two people that had ever been in the world. And they were only now just meeting.” (Gautier’s “Held”)
These are two changing points in the narrators’ lives, and they’re so stark, so distant from one another. The first is a girl on the cusp of the adult world, realizing that no matter how hard she tries to push herself not to see, she can’t help but look. The second, a girl realizing she is her child’s whole world and if she doesn’t want her daughter to end up the same as her, she has to change herself. Two girls, on the edge of something new, whether that newness is good or bad, whether that change is for the best or the worst.
There are small moments of joy, but they’re eclipsed by the overall somber tone of the collection. This is about children and childhood, but that doesn’t mean these stories are necessarily happy, that they end on high notes. After all, how many of our own childhoods ended in idyllic happily-ever-afters? “This is how it goes,” thinks Antoya Nelson in “Cold Places.” “You come in from a cold place and sit in another cold place.”
That doesn’t mean the collection as a whole isn’t beautiful. But Down on the Sidewalk doesn’t leave you with a sweet taste on your tongue. It’s the cloying taste of memory; no matter how old we get, we can’t ever seem to escape our childhoods.