Book Review: On the Day I Died, by Candace Fleming
As a rule, short story collections aren’t really my bag. Loving movies as I do, I like for my fiction to have a similar narrative sweep and scope. I’m also a sucker for great character development. To my eye, those are two traits which you just don’t find in short stories. Except for the likes a Neil Gaiman or Ray Bradbury, I don’t actively seek out the style. That said, good writing is good writing, and Candace Fleming has authored a tidy little collection of spookiness which more than satisfies my sensibilities.
Speaking of the Bard of Mars, Fleming’s frame was quite reminiscent of Bradbury’s works, especially The Illustrated Man. In this case, sixteen-year-old Mike Kowalski is racing home after midnight when a soaking wet girl steps into the glare of his headlights. He’s out past curfew again, but offers her a ride all the same. After dropping her off, he notices she left her saddle shoes behind. When he knocks on the darkened door, this scene unfolds:
“The porch light snapped on. The door swung open. Standing there was a woman as tired and sagging as her old house. ‘You’ve come to return her shoes, haven’t you?’
Mike stammered, ‘Y-yes, yes, how did you–‘
‘Someone always returns her shoes,’ the woman interrupted. ‘Always on October twenty-sixth. Every year on this date.’
‘None of you ever believe me,’ the woman said. ‘But it’s God’s own truth. I wish it wasn’t, but it is. She’s dead.'” (p. 6)
There’s a cynical part of me that wants to roll my eye at the trope, but there’s no denying that it does the job. It gets our boy Mike into White Cemetery, a graveyard filled with teenage occupants (and based on a real cemetery north of Chicago, by the way). On this moonlight night, in a dank wood, with mist all around, Mike finds a path that runs “like a church aisle down the center of the graveyard, ending at an algae-covered lagoon” (p. 9). Here, held in the thrall of fear (and perhaps something more), Mike must sit and listen to the untimely end of nine teens. Some of the ghosts are sad and some are angry, some seem confused, but all are pushed by the desire to have a living person hear their story. In this act, the ghosts display the powerfully human need to be remembered: “We may just be specters in this world, but our stories, if they are remembered and retold, become real and solid and alive” (p. 189).
What a wonderfully phrased thought that is, and it is just as true today as it ever was. Since Beowulf, the majority of English words have been poured onto the page in an effort to create a legacy. Authors have either been recording the deeds of others, both good and bad, or they have been telling stories in an effort to create an impact beyond the limited scope of a single life. Sure, people create art for all kinds of reasons, but at one level or another we are all trying to reach beyond ourselves. For the Christian, this is more than a latent impulse, it is a mandate. After his death, Jesus sent his disciples out to be his witnesses, that through our stories and lives, He would become “real and solid and alive” to the waiting world. This is meant to be our shared legacy with Him. How well and in what way each of us does this is a matter of great variability, much like the spectrum of art.
In the case of this book, I think Fleming does it better than most. Not only does the line quoted above flow beautifully, but it also makes the frame meaningful. It gives Mike a purpose other than being a proxy for the reader. Like with The Canterbury Tales, the frame is not the principal matter of the text, but without it the stories lose cohesion. The tales told span more than 150 years of Chicago history, but aren’t really about Chicago. I’ve seen other reviewers call this book a “love letter to Chicago”, but I think that’s unfair to Fleming. That city is clearly influential and important, but it doesn’t become a character in its own right. Rather, the dead teens hold their own in passing the narrative torch, and Fleming manages to give each person a unique voice while still maintaining a consistent narrative. In so doing, Fleming rounds out her characters to a degree I don’t usually see in short stories.