Coal country in Northern Pennsylvania forms the landscape of the dark and moving stories in this collection. At once punishing and yet achingly beautiful, the coal-mining-turned-fracking lands feed and shape the characters’ lives. Black deftly handles an assortment of characters and voices, including men and women, young and old, gay and straight, as well as people of varied socio-economic levels.
I appreciate Black’s use of second person point of view in "Lion in the Hills" in which a father speaks to his son. As he goes about the task of removing a mountain lion cub from his property, he ruminates on the death of a former friend and the frailty of marriage. Second person point of view is not easy to pull off, but its use in this story gave it the immediacy and intimacy that the story demanded.
"It Burns," shows a man looking back on his teenage years, when he was caught between troubled friend Danny and Mikaela, the girl everyone knew would leave for college and escape forever. The reader, and possibly the main character, knows his middle class upbringing is at risk and that the choices he makes as a teenager will impact the rest of his life. The melancholy of the narrator, the severity of early life choices, and the masterful way the story unfolded left me gasping at the story's close.
“Susquehanna, 1960” explores the aftermath of the flooding of a mine by a local river, which killed dozens, maimed many, and left a large part of the community without work. An older miner and a young miner with a ruined leg build a boat together, and set sail for a larger town downriver. Their status as outsiders staring at a future without much hope will leave readers aching.
Each story captured both the treachery of the human condition and also its moments of beauty. This is a collection for readers with rural connections, for lovers of the short story, and, indeed, every serious reader.
William Black’s stories have appeared in The Sun, The Southern Review, Threepenny Review, Crazyhorse, Prairie Schooner, the Florida Review, and many other journals and magazines. He lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania and teaches at Johns Hopkins University.
Reviewed by Shelby Settles Harper.