Books by Laura Chester

<< Rancho Weirdo | Review republished from Hipster Book Club


Bootstrap Productions, 2008
ISBN: 9780977997596
212 pages; Paperback
GENRE(S): Fiction, Short Stories

Reviewed by Marie Mundaca

In this collection of stories, poet Laura Chester explores the boundaries between civilization and nature in surprising, funny, and lyrical ways, making deep statements about man's inability to fit itself into nature's puzzle. The strange and charming illustrations by Haeri Yoo enhance the off-kilter surreality of Chester's stories. Chester's quirky protagonists and their foibles make for a delightful reading experience, and the characters' desires and inability to make the best of their odd situations will have many readers shaking their heads in recognition.

Themes of borders and boundaries being crossed are prevalent in Rancho Weirdo. In "Bye-Ya Con Dios" an adolescent girl goes on a birding trip with her dad, and while showing off her new vocabulary words printed in capital letters (and sometimes misspelled), she spills truths about her relationship with her religious, estranged father, and her relationship with God and nature. Her father is anxious to get out into the woods, but she feels a little ill-at-ease because, as she says, "Nature is surely ENCROACHING!"

Nature continues to "encroach" civilization throughout the stories, in various forms, often as non-Americans are invited into the characters' posh homes. In "Law of Lead" a well-meaning woman opens up her spacious home (soon to be "featured in Southwest Says") to Mexican immigrants traveling across the border. But it's not food and water that those who stop by are after; they're after rides to Phoenix and a house tour. The immigrants are anxious to adapt and assimilate as soon as they cross the border. In "Curse of the Forced Flower," a writer's house is taken over by her boarder, a seemingly harmless young Asian woman who turns out to be more akin to a force of nature than a human.

In "Don't Tell Daddy," teenagers girls with psychological problems are sent to camp to commune with nature,. The story is harrowing, both for the subject matter and for the narrator's seemingly flippant attitude towards her situation. After she witnesses the destruction of the World Trade Center as a child, she begins to act out, further exacerbated by her mother's depression and the subsequent abandonment of her family. Talking about herself and the other girls, she speaks, rather prosaically:

We each have our implements and have either hurt ourselves or another or both. I cut my baby sister. She looked like dough. Little dough girl arms little dough girl legs. It didn't seem wrong at the time to slice into her but then of course the blood soaked her crib sheet and there was a five star alarm. They rushed her to the hospital leaving me all alone so I cut myself also. BFD.

Other girls at the camp are victims of rape. One lost her entire family in a fire. The girls take on Native American identities, calling themselves Minnehahas and using Bic pens and bad attitudes as weapons. The group bonds over their traumas, but rather than using that bond to heal, they turn feral. They have watched civilization fall, and decided to remake it in their own way.

Chester's stories are short and sweet but with a bitter afterbite. Like poetry, they tend to be small, dense, and meaningful. They leave readers with a wisp of a feeling that blossoms as one ponders them. The characters can often seem rather flighty and ungrounded, but they are the perfect foils for the heavy theme of man versus the unknown.

(January, 2009)