Gary K. Wolfe and Paula Guran Review Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes
Burning Girls and Other Stories, Veronica Schanoes (Tordotcom 978-1-250781505, $25.99, 336pp, hc) March 2021.
“History is a fairy tale”, a subtitle in Veronica Schanoes’s story “Emma Goldman Takes Tea with the Baba Yaga”, could almost serve as an epigram for the whole of her first collection, Burning Girls and Other Stories. Schanoes, who is a scholar of fairy tales, feminism, and Jewish literature and history, brings all of her considerable resources to bear in these 14 stories, which include most of the short fiction she published since 2003. And while there is an occasional tendency to embed snippets of historical lectures as a kind of ballast for her more visceral nightmares – “Truth can be told in any number of ways,” she tells us in the Goldman story – it never mitigates the passion and anger that is the real engine of her fiction. Almost as if to illustrate, the Goldman story begins by offering us alternate fairytale and historical modes of narrative: “Once upon a time there was a girl, the third and youngest daughter of a merchant” begins one paragraph, followed by one beginning “Emma Goldman came to Rochester, New York from St. Petersburg in 1995….” Later on, the two narrative voices come together after Emma, wandering in the woods, comes across the chicken-legged house of the famous Russian witch, who makes her an offer that helps Goldman to clarify her commitment to her ideals.
“Emma Goldman” isn’t the strongest story in the collection – that honor goes to the Shirley Jackson Award-winning title story “Burning Girls” – but it may be the one that casts most fully into relief Schanoes’s recurring themes of folk fantasy, Jewish survival, labor history, feminism, family, and even the occasional ill-fated romance, all of which lend her fiction a distinctive and quite memorable voice. These also come together in that remarkable title novella, which begins in Byalystok, Poland, where the narrator Deborah learns magic from her grandmother and helps fend off a demon called a lilit, and ends in New York, where Deborah and her sister Shayna flee after the rest of their family is killed in a pogrom. “In America they don’t let you burn,” their mother had promised, in what turns out to be a bitter irony. Not only do the sisters find that the demon has followed them to the New World, where it makes a Rumpelstiltskin-like deal with Shayna, but they learn that they’ve traded pogroms and burned villages for the newer terrors of predatory capitalism, ending in a vivid description of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which gives the story its title. Even that is not quite as horrifying as “Phosphorus”, which describes the fates of women match-factory workers in 19th-century London, exposed to fatal levels of phosphorus that literally cause their jaws to dissolve; it’s a powerful reminder that the darker corners of labor history provide their own horror stories, even as they may eventually lead to reforms.
Schanoes’s signature talent lies in repositioning folk and fairytale motifs in historical contexts, such as her lead story “Among the Thorns”, which recasts the famously anti-Semitic Grimm story “The Jew Among Thorns” as a revenge fantasy (and also rather cleverly makes use of the wall of thorns from “Sleeping Beauty”). The author she most often recalls in these stories is Jane Yolen, though along with the German, Polish, or Russian settings Schanoes is fascinated by contemporary urban punk culture as well. “Ballroom Blitz” borrows elements of “The Shoes that Were Danced to Pieces” in a grim tale of being trapped for months in a seedy nightclub with a scary bartender, while “Rats” echoes aspects of the Sleeping Beauty tale in a self-destructive story about an unnamed Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen (though the narrator rather too coyly keeps asking, “Do you recognize the story yet?”). In “Serpents”, a Doc Martens-wearing version of Red Riding Hood makes her way through an abandoned New York subway station, assisted by birds, while in “Lily Glass” the magic mirrors and toxic jealousy of “Snow White” are given a refreshingly queer twist in a golden-age Hollywood fable of a starlet married to a fading superstar (echoes of A Star is Born!) who finds more satisfaction with the stepdaughter who is nearer her own age. Another revenge tale, the most disturbing and visceral in the book, is “The Revenant”, which draws on both the folklore of Bloody Mary mirror chants and a turn-of-the-century song called “The Belle of Avenoo A” (not the Ed Sanders song) to tell of a teenage-geek-girl-turned punk who, after a toxic affair with a 45-year-old man, returns as the revenant of the title to confront him a quarter-century later. Solely in terms of technique, with its skillful switches of first-, second-, and third-person viewpoints and unflinching examination of the nature of sexual trauma, it’s also the most ambitious tale in terms of literary complexity.
While most of Schanoes’s fiction boldly experiments with combined storytelling modes, a few are more playfully absurdist in the tradition of Kelly Link, Carmen Maria Machado, or Julie C. Day. “Lost in the Supermarket”, with its narrator trapped in an apparently infinite supermarket, is not only a sharp satire of consumerism and bits of recent history, but another nod to punk sensibility (this time mostly The Clash). The parents of the narrator’s fiancé in “Swimming” are obsessively building additions to their already giant house in Brooklyn, hoping to top it all off with the historic Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel and driving the narrator to plan a radical kind of sabotage. “Alice: A Fantasia” begins almost as a speculative essay about Alice Liddell, her sisters, and their strange relationship with Charles Dodgson (“Uncle D”), briefly shifts to a meditation on magic mirrors and the mirror-sign delusion, and ends with a rhyming word fugue, called clang association by therapists but equally reminiscent of carefully worked-out Joycean wordplay. Like some of Schanoes’s story structures, it might frustrate impatient readers who just want a straightforward plot (though I’d urge such readers to try reading it aloud). As dark and unsettling as some of her subjects may be, Schanoes consistently reminds us of the joy of finding, making, unfolding, and blending stories, of how narratives of history and narratives of fantasy reflect and illuminate each other. At her best, which is on display more often than not in Burning Girls and Other Stories, it’s a joy that’s thoroughly contagious, and a welcome debut.
–Gary K. Wolfe
Perhaps the most frightening thing about the dark tales in Veronica Schanoes’s debut collection is that many of them are based in fact. Burning Girls and Other Stories begins with “Among the Thorns” about a 17th-century Polish girl who – assisted (or possessed) by the Matronit, a female aspect of Adonai – seeks revenge on the anti-Semitic town that tortured and killed her peddler father. Based on a traditional fairy tale, Schanoes’s story also recounts barbarous true incidents of anti-Semitism and a glimpse of the Jews’ appalling future. The central character of “Phosphorus” is a young woman dying from phossy jaw contracted while manufacturing matches at Bryant & May. The story includes some Irish witchery, but the matchmaking company, the workers’ suffering and abuse, and the strike against it in 1888 are all real. The protagonist is even based on a partially seen figure in a photo of some of the matchgirl strikers. The title of “Emma Goldman Takes Tea with the Baba Yaga” is as self-explanatory as one needs get in a short review. The eponymous “Burning Girls” ends the volume. Schanoes’s (so-far) most lauded work, it is a masterpiece. The novella combines the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and “Rumpelstiltskin” while reminding the reader of the importance of Jews in the chronicle and existence of New York City (and America). Lily, in contemporary fairy tale “Rats”, bears a more than superficial resemblance to Nancy Spungen. Not all the stories are so closely associated with reality, but they all reflect the truth. “Ballroom Blitz” is not “factual” as it reimagines fairy tale “Twelve Dancing Princesses” in a darkly humorous punk milieu but does deal realistically with depression. The angry narrator of “Trapped in the Supermarket” reflects modern fears and the saving grace of punk music. “Swimming” might be interpreted as being about how a house can both protect and overwhelm and how, in life, one must destroy as well as build. The protagonist of “The Revenant” summons (via the recitation of “Bloody Mary”) an entity to deal with a man who traumatized her as a girl. Schanoes’s stories resonate with the past and with traditional tales but are also uniquely modern. Fiercely feminist, ingenuously Jewish, beautiful, brutal, both dreamlike and undeniably real, the impact of the 13 stories in this debut collection proves Schanoes to be a must-read author.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
Paula Guran has edited more than 40 science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies and more than 50 novels and collections featuring the same. She’s reviewed and written articles for dozens of publications. She lives in Akron OH, near enough to her grandchildren to frequently be indulgent.
These reviews and more like them in the March 2021 issue of Locus.
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