Building Fires in the Snow
Edited by Martha Amore and Lucian Childs; University of Alaska Press; 342 pages; $29.95 paperback
C.S. Lewis supposedly said, "We read to know we are not alone."
This quote beautifully captures the mood of the LGBT fiction and poetry collection "Building Fires in the Snow."
Edited by Alaska writer and writing instructor Martha Amore as well as former Alaska writer Lucian Childs, the anthology reads like a warm light on a cold and dark winter night. The collective voices fold around readers until they feel comforted and accepted.
And also, perhaps, a little on edge.
Many good things
Alaska LGBT writers shine in this hefty assortment of stories and poems, ranging from fishing by Seduction Point to hitchhiking up the Alaska Highway to hanging out around downtown Anchorage bars.
There are so many good things included in this collection, it's impossible to name them all.
The opening story, Rosemary McGuire's "Luke," pulls readers inside the world of commercial fishing, blending poetic language with the harsher dialect of life on the water until every word pulses with the smell of the sea:
It was blowing when he dropped the hook behind Grass Island. The outgoing tide hissed over hard, gray sand.
Susanna Mishler's poem "Tired, I Lie Down in the Parking Garage" is so unusual and yet so fittingly perfect that it's difficult, upon reaching the end, to not punch one's arm up in the air in unified triumph.
In Teresa Sundmark's short story "Worse Disasters," two young lesbian women try to find housing amid early 1970s discrimination, only to discover something deeper and more lasting.
Poet Elizabeth Bradfield's "Eight Years" chronicles an elegant account of a quiet winter day on the outskirts of the city:
The moose ran out from the trees and I ran back
to you and we stared and backed away together,
frightened by the huge answer of its body.
Vivian Faith Prescott's "Can I touch your Chinese Hair?" involves a series of questions that moves disjointedly yet elegantly forward with sardonic and cunning force. While brief, its complexity demands a second, and third, read.
In contrast, Laura Carpenter's short story "Mirror, Mirror" reads with a rare simplicity and honesty, a poetic metaphor of how woman view motherhood and the changes, and losses, it entails.
"Fact-Checking," a story by Alyse Knorr, weaves humor with the underlying sadness of unrequited love as the narrator, a copy editor for an Anchorage newspaper, subtly changes facts to give newspaper stories more weight, more meaning:
The only thing that could be done to restore the bear's dignity was to retell this one part of the story — how many shots it had taken to bring him down.
Egan Millard's "Mondegreen," takes readers inside the world of Anchorage club Mad Myrna's on a late October night.
M.C. Mohagani Magnetek weaves more of her popular "Ms. Mahogany Bones" tales in "Shhhh-Be-Quiet."
Indra Arriaga, the sole bilingual voice in the collection, chronicles life's passages with a train trip from New York to New Orleans in "19 Crescent":
Sleep comes no matter what, and all things lived, big and small, are folded into my body's history.
Dawnell Smith's "What Would Derby Do" is an ingenious slice of humor and grace, blending roller derby know-how with an advice blog. It's one of those rare pieces of fiction that teases nuggets of wisdom inside seemingly innocuous words, offering readers the chance to question their own lives, their own choices.
And then there are Amy Groshek's poems, too powerful to ignore or forget. Nestled in the middle of the book, her work draws readers down deeper, invites them to witness beauty in all of its ordinariness:
With her the candles and blossoms
that covered the smell of the dead.
I was lighter then, or heavier.
How she flies.
Where are the diverse voices?
"Building Fires in the Snow" is a groundbreaking anthology that merits much credit, not only for the power of the prose but for how each work flows seamlessly into the next. Amore and Childs must be applauded for their skillful and careful editing.
Yet, it's difficult to read through the book without noticing what's missing — more diverse voices.
Most of the collection's authors are college-educated women who either teach writing or have obtained writing degrees, and while this works in favor of the book's flow, it works against the theme of an LGBT anthology. It's hard not to wonder: Where are the teenage voices? The rural voices? The minority voices? Where are the working-class viewpoints, the grit and wildness that also make up a large part of Alaska?
Amore and Childs touch upon this in the introduction, stating that they anticipated wider diversity yet received too few submissions.
Still, one can't help but wonder how much fuller and richer the book might feel if it included more stories by LGBT writers lacking literary magazine savvy, pieces that were perhaps more roughly written yet deeply felt.
Hopefully, Amore and Childs will produce a second volume, one with a farther-reaching scope, deeper diversity and a better-rounded continuum of Alaska's LGBT community.
Until then, "Building Fires in the Snow" is more than enough to keep readers warm throughout the upcoming winter, and beyond.
Cinthia Ritchie is a freelance writer and author. She blogs about writing, books and Alaska life at www.cinthiaritchie.com