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Connie's Corner: Heavier Than Air

Connie Nardini begins her occasional series of book reviews and other news as she sees fit.


Heavier Than Air: A Collection of Short Stories
By Nona Caspers


Short-story writer Nona Caspers creates a tapestry of small towns - mostly of her native Minnesota - and chronicles the lives of people living there who have a hard time coming down to earth. They either don't want or seem to know that they're "heavier than air" because they live in unreal worlds of their own making.

nona_caspers.jpgFor instance, in the title story, a mother is so hell-bent on keeping Satan from taking her over (she's the wife of the Pentecostal minister of the Sacred Life Church in St Cloud, Minn.), that she is often oblivious, for example, that her children desperately need a meal. Her funeral opens the story, and one of her daughters says, "She'll go up to the Lord like a helium balloon." The daughter, telling the story in flashback, visits her mother at a "home" just before her death, and she relates, "I walked over to her and wrapped my arms around her . . . I made myself a weight around her hips, as if with my body I could hold her to the ground."

This daughter finds it hard to forgive her mother for not being grounded in love for children instead of fear of the next world. Caspers begs the question, "Which is heavier?"

A bit later, in the 1960s-set story, "Wide Like an Eagle's Wings," the temporariness of life comes home to Mannie, a fifth-grader (and a fervent Democrat in a family of Republicans), when her little sister drowns before her eyes. While she tries to resuscitate her, she imagines carrying her sister back home and laying her "on their old snagged brown couch, where there had never been a dead body." She realizes then the fragility of her own breath. "It was as small as that. Breath." (Caspers' own brother had spina bifida, so death was always present in her home, just waiting to arrive at any moment.)

Mannie had hoped for the election of John F. Kennedy because, "He was the one who was going to change their lives the one who would make things different," and the story is full of reasons why she so furiously wants things to be different, including a 10-year-old neighbor boy who appears naked in a tree, getting ready to fly away because he believes he's an eagle.

Caspers received an MFA from the University of Minnesota and after starting many careers, like being a waitress, she decided to become a teacher of writing. She is now an assistant professor at the San Francisco State University. She has had poetry and essays published, won many literary awards and received the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction for Heavier Than Air, her first collection.

She said many of her friends criticized the stories in this book for their lack of happy endings. There is one exception - the tale called "The EE Cry," about a man who finally learns that fat can be beautiful. Caspers believes that happy endings or final resolutions, can "kill off" characters because there is no further action possible. Real life, she says, is far too ephemeral to be resolved so neatly. And, she adds, resolution doesn't leave a character space for further possibilities, like maybe a realization that free choice can alter so-called inevitable consequences, or perhaps that their actions might lead to bad consequences. We can lose track of ourselves - that's why we can hide the facts of who were are and what we should be doing in the rollercoaster of daily life.

This collection gives voice to the imagination of a small-town girl who, like the figure in the cover art, leaves town striding on steady legs and bare feet feeling their way through shifting sands.


Posted on August 29, 2007

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