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Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015 12:10 am

Stories of people on the margins getting by

On the Rez and Other Stories by Barbara Wyatt Olson. AuthorHouse Publishing, 2015.
Springfield author Barbara Wyatt Olson has completed her first short fiction collection. On the Rez and Other Stories is an anthology populated with ordinary people whose struggles stay with you long after you’ve finished reading about them.

Previous to this latest work, Olson authored two memoirs about her time in the Peace Corps in Gondar, Ethiopia. A longtime social activist, Olson has worked locally advocating for the homeless. She seems to have drawn from her experiences for this book. The stories demonstrate an author who has a great empathy for those who are marginalized, and each scenario is realistically presented. This being a self-published work, there are some typos and an occasional unevenness in the plotlines, but these slight flaws do not diminish the honest and authentic quality the author has said she is trying to achieve.

The narrator of Olson’s story, “In the Tall Grass,” is five-year-old May, who hides and speaks to the events that are unfolding. Clearly something is amiss – her uncle has a gas mask and disappears every month to “practice with soldiers.” Closer to home is her mother’s not-quite-right relationship with a neighbor. In spite of the child’s chirpy innocence, there is a foreboding to the story, but the perspective allows readers to draw their own conclusion about what is actually happening in May’s family.

The situations, while often grim, never seem hopeless. The characters are simply getting by, as best they are able. Joy is found in small moments, like when a character buys scratch-off lottery tickets and indulges in a what-if-I-won fantasy after a frustrating day.

“Pretty Baby” is the story of Princess, whose desire to escape from her dysfunctional family led her to marry a 45-year-old man when she was a teenager. While Princess’s husband seems to genuinely love her and treat her well, it isn’t enough to sustain her spirit. She expresses her longing through songwriting. Eventually her husband allows her a brief trip back to her hometown to see her best friend, but the marked difference of their lives renders the reunion bittersweet.

Olson’s collection also includes several senior characters. They struggle to keep their dignity and sense of purpose as they face health issues, loss of friends, family and their independence. “The Fresno Frame Retirement Caper,” one of the more lighthearted pieces in the book, features a group of feisty elderly women and an ingenious scheme.

A Native American woman is the focus of the title story, “On the Rez.” She gracefully subverts the racist assumptions of a man whom she assists after his car breaks down. They find common ground over a mutual love of obscure horror movies.

At the heart of the collection is a series of interconnected stories based on the author’s real-life experience while visiting a relative in Glades Correctional Institute in Florida. These stories, collectively called “Florida Blues,” take the reader through the anxiety and bureaucracy that come with trying to reconnect with an incarcerated loved one. The actual visit isn’t as central to the plot as what finally spurs the characters into making the journey in the first place. Here, the landscape mirrors the raw emotions of the people as they pass through the literal scorched earth of the burning sugar cane fields around the prison.

With Halloween as our fall backdrop, these 15 stories are certainly haunting, but not in the traditional style of ghosts and goblins. They are crafted from the insecurities and disappointments of life – the stuff that truly keeps one awake at night.

Olson’s book is available from Amazon (paper $19.95; e-book $3.99). It can also be ordered directly from the author’s website, www.ontherezandotherstories.com.

Shawna Mayer has written for the Quincy Herald-Whig and has had her short stories published in Illinois Times and in literary journals across the country and online.

Book signing
A shared opening for Barbara Olson’s On the Rez, John Knoepfle’s Aloe of Evening and Sandy Baksys’ A Century of Lithuanuans in Springfield, Illinois will be Nov. 12, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., First Presbyterian Church, Seventh and Capitol, garden entrance, with authors’ signings and refreshments. Copies of Olson’s book will be available for the reduced price of $12.

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