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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

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NOV 2020 Issue
Books

Danielle Evans’s The Office of Historical Corrections

Danielle Evans
The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Short Stories
(Riverhead, 2020)

Danielle Evans is a superb short-story writer whose first story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (2010), published 10 years ago, was a co-winner of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for fiction, the Paterson Prize for Fiction, and an honorable mention for the PEN/Hemingway award. Two of her stories from Before You Suffocate were selected for The Best American Short Stories (BASS) anthologies. Five of the six stories in her new collection, The Office of Historical Corrections, are as good as the best stories in her first book. Two stories in her current collection were included in the BASS anthology. Although Evans has never published a novel, it’s good to see that her talent extends to longer work, as the best story in this book is the novella and social satire “The Office of Historical Corrections.” Other extraordinary stories include “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” and “Boys Go to Jupiter,” which originally appeared in American Short Fiction and The Sewanee Review and were anthologized in BASS 2017 and BASS 2018.

Evans, an Assistant Professor of writing in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, writes mostly about middle– and upper-middle class folks—some are Black, white, Chicana, and some are mixed. Their stories address friendship, distrust, social injustice, jealousy, revenge, and white supremacy. Often her protagonists aren’t readily likable—they have good intentions and do or try to do mostly good things, but they are flawed. It’s the aim of Evans’s writing to create characters that are as flawed and sometimes as unsavory as the typical human being—if there is such a thing. Other characters don’t realize just how defective they are.

In Evans’s novella, a former history professor, Dr. Cassandra “Cassie” Jacobs, works as a field agent for the Institute for Public History (IPH) in Washington, D.C. The department was created by the demands of an ambitious freshman congresswoman who wanted to install public historians throughout the country to correct the “contemporary crisis of truth.” That crisis seems especially relevant today when we have a president who is so economical with the truth that his statements will take years to rectify. Cassie’s job, though, is to “protect the historical record” and make corrections without picking fights and without correcting people’s opinions of current news. When Cassie makes corrections she attaches a double holograph sticker with a raised seal to the inaccurate “fact,” which sounds a lot like Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative fact” and George Orwell’s “Newspeak.” Cassie would type the text of the correction on the office’s one futuristic indulgence—a handheld printer. Often Cassie’s corrections over the past four years she’s been with the IPH are minor and sometimes humorous like the time she corrected a tourist who thought the Rayburn Building was named after game show host Gene Rayburn. Unfortunately, I can actually envision an American tourist asking that Rayburn question. But things become more serious. When Cassie is about to pick up a cake for her friend Daniel’s birthday, she notices a flyer that needs a “minor correction,” which she wouldn't have bothered with four years ago. The flyer explains Juneteenth, which is frosted onto the cake: We all know about the Fourth of July! But why not start celebrating freedom a few weeks early and observe the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation! Say it with cake!

The minor correction: “The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862. Juneteenth is celebrated nationally because it’s become a holiday for the whole diaspora, but it actually recognizes the date slaves in Texas learned they were free, which was in June 1865, after the end of the Civil War.”

“No biggie,” Cassie says. That’s quite the minor correction! But field agents are instructed not to cause arguments.

Soon, Cassie is sent to Wisconsin to investigate a situation stirred up by her old nemesis and former colleague Genevieve, that requires clarification and possible correction. The boss calls it a “Genevieve problem.” Genie, Cassie’s rival in grade school, high school, and graduate school, had been dismissed for several “policy violations.” But now Genevieve is in Cherry Mill, Wisconsin, and has sent a message to IPH about the plaque at a building owned by the legendary Josiah Wynslow. Wynslow reportedly died in 1937 when white “concerned citizens” burned his printing shop down. The fire and murder were openly bragged about, which served as a warning not to be Black in Cherry Mill. The perpetrators even had their smiling faces photographed with the caption, “The Cherry Mill Defenders: Fire Purifies.” Decades later in the 1990s, a plaque was installed for Wynslow. But when Genevieve replaces the plaque with one of her own, which names Wynslow’s killers, a concerned idiot who calls himself White Justice makes threats. He leads the Free Americans a group of white supremacists “who preferred to be called white preservationists.” Further complicating matters for Cassie and her investigation is the rumor that Wynslow may not have died in the fire. The story is fraught with plot twists, some sardonic humor, and a tragic ending.

In “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain,” Rena, a freelance photojournalist is in town for her friend Dori’s wedding weekend. Dori, a preschool teacher and pastor’s daughter, is marrying a white guy called JT who Rena has known for five years. Not only will Dori’s father deliver a sermon called “God’s Rainbow Sign for You,” Dori’s trying her damnedest to tie the theme of the wedding to the ark and the rainbow, God’s promise not to destroy the world—at least, not with another flood. All the bridesmaids wear the colors of the rainbow: “ROY G. BIV.” But Rena, who isn’t in the wedding party, wears black. Dori is distrustful of Rena and has always been curious about Rena’s relationship with JT. Still, the wedding goes on. The girls barhop for the bachelorette party, but the poor guys endure a boring night in a hotel penthouse with scotch, cigars, and the pastor. Meanwhile, JT has second thoughts.

Roxane Gay picked “Boys Go to Jupiter” for BASS 2018 and calls it one of the finest short stories she's ever read. Evans looks again at the sort of social injustice she describes in her novella: “victims without wrongdoers.” This time the story concerns the Confederate flag and a bikini. Claire, a white girl, has flown south for Christmas break. A boy she meets down there gives her a bikini with the image of the Confederate flag on it. After he takes a picture of her wearing it and posts it on Facebook, Claire’s Black hallmate at Dennis College sees it and is outraged. That starts a series of events where libertarians and school officials get involved and further exacerbate the situation.

Unfortunately, the story “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” written as an experimental mass apologia doesn’t quite work for me. But other stories like “Happily Ever After” are first-rate. In it Lyssa, now 30, works in the gift shop of the Titanic, a smaller ship-shaped replica of the vessel, an attraction that includes a museum. The Titanic’s business comes mostly from hosting weddings and birthday parties. Lyssa’s life has been paralyzed by a kind of long-term shock after her mother died of ovarian cancer and she herself is advised to have her ovaries removed. “Alcatraz” is Cecilia’s story about her mother who has been trying for years to get reparations from the US government for the wrongful incarceration of Cecilia’s great-grandfather, Charles Sullivan, in Alcatraz for murder. At 15, Charles falsified his birth certificate and joined the army near the end of WWI. Charles didn’t go overseas, but was stationed in California as a border guard. He’d accidentally shot two men, was convicted of murder, and waited to be executed by firing squad. His court-appointed army lawyer was able to get him a pardon and a dishonorable discharge. Though the government admits it made a mistake, it will do nothing more to correct it—no honorable discharge and no reparations. In “Anything Could Disappear,” Vera is a college drop-out who heads to New York by bus to deliver a bag of cocaine. On the way, she acquires a baby—the baby’s mother asks Vera to watch her son, and then she disappears. Eventually, lucky Vera finds a job as a receptionist and a place for her and the baby to stay. The job, working for Derek and William who call themselves couriers, pays $20 per hour instead of $10, because only 95 percent of what they do is legal. The job works out, but only for a while.

All of Evans’s characters are sharply and realistically drawn; and she has no problem, as her novella proves, manipulating the intricacies of plotting longer work. But she deserves a larger audience than a short-story writer usually has—not withstanding folks like Alice Munro and James Alan McPherson. Likewise, with at least one obvious exception, short story collections seldom get reviewed and often go unnoticed. Evans, who didn’t set out to write a novella, says this one grew out of a novel that she’d been working on and that she gave the story as much room as she thought it needed “and no more than that.”

I can’t wait for her first novel. Let’s hope it’s less than 10 years away and certainly no more than that.

Contributor

Joseph Peschel

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at [email protected] or through his blog at http://josephpeschel.com/HaveWords/.

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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

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