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A review of Spells for Victory and Courage

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Spells for Victory and Courage
by Dana Fitz Gale
Brighthorse Books, 2016; 196 pp; $14.99.

On the first day of every creative writing class I teach, I open with the same assignment—on garbage. It’s not as bad as it sounds. The assignment proceeds as follows: 1) Go home and dig through your trash. 2) Catalog each piece. 3) Bring in the list. 4) Share. My students are amazed by what they can learn about a person after rifling through their candy bar wrappers and magazines. The final step of this assignment is to fill the hypothetical contents of your protagonist's trash. What would this person decide was worth their money, their time, their waste? This is what creating character is: the filling in of a person, the clutter that comes with life. Dana Fitz Gale knows this and her collection of short stories, Spells for Victory and Courage, reeks of reality because of it. It's why this debut book won the Brighthorse Prize in short fiction and was a finalist for the Flannery O'Connor Award and Ohio State Book Prize. She fills in the blanks of her characters with details so true and gritty and heartbreaking that they speak and hurt as we do. She exposes their soft underbellies for the world to see:

"I recognized the sound of loneliness. I could write the book on loneliness," claims Astrid, an aging intellectual suddenly cast as nurse to her husband after his stroke.

"Leah knows how people talk about her when she’s not around. Poor Leah. Her husband up and disappeared when she was still a newlywed and now she’s growing old with just a cat for company and not a penny to her name," thinks the church-going, church-cleaning target of a mercenary evangelist.

"Thanks to the pills, he mostly doesn’t feel anything at all," admits the war veteran finding himself in the middle of a broken life after Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fitz Gale weaves together the wounded lives of people who at first glance read like clichés, caricatures of life, eating Fritos in broken down Winnebagos or gossiping in the quilting club. But their hurt fills them out, makes them real and makes one want to gather them up and host a dinner party for the lonely. None of these characters, however, would attend. They'd make a mockery of the attempt. Their sarcasm cuts sharp with both wit and bitterness.

The magic of Fitz Gale's stories is in the turns, the twists off the path of expectation. The spells she weaves here are not just for victory and courage; they are for a broadening of mind and a hopefulness despite circumstance. It does not always end well for these characters, but the end is not the point. The point is the trying. Readers will not like all of these protagonists, but they will root for them despite themselves.

Unlike many short story collections, Fitz Gale strays from a stagnant time or place. With each new story comes a new era, a new small Midwestern town, a new national climate for a new lonely soul. She bounces the reader from 1950s Studebakers to present-day carnivals to a lakeside town just shy of the hippie movement. She plays time like a song, weaving notes to her liking. What could be disorienting, instead serves to strengthen the book's unifying message: there are lonely people everywhere, in every time, and there is honor in the fight to belong.

Fitz Gale is also not afraid to play with form. In "Schooling," under the headings of various school subjects, the teenage protagonist presents a bleak picture of her life at the racetracks with her wheelchair bound ex-jockey father. Chemistry carries the dark truth that "prescription pain pills, mixed with gin, can sometimes make him mean as snakes," while English reveals guilt over escaping such a life: "The past tense of the verb to leave is left…the antonym of love is loss. Betrayal is a synonym for daughter."

In "Fourteen Tips for Selling Real Estate," Fitz Gale throws the reader off balance with subheadings both peppy and sarcastic. Tip #1—"Make sure your house has an appealing smell. Bake cookies, light a fragrant candle, place fresh bowls of potpourri in every room"—is juxtaposed with Tip #5: "If you have a wife with Alzheimer's disease, attempt to keep her in the basement, out of sight." The titles serve as both axioms and social commentary.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about these tales is laughter, despite the darkness. It is black comedy put to paper. In "Fun with Color," Avery, the socially awkward, makeup-hawking housewife, tries to peddle beauty products to working class women in a dying mill town. In one scene, Avery attempts the hard sell on a bailiff with an aggressive Doberman and no patience:

"So Valerie," I say, "how would you like to spend a few hours pampering yourself, experimenting with our new spring line?" Val's eyes, already small, contract to slits. I offer her a printed invitation to the party. "Let’s be honest, Valerie. Wouldn't you love to spend a little time relaxing with some other girls? Just trying out new products, having fun with color?"
She blinks once, twice, and tries to shove me out the door. "Bring a friend," I say, bracing my hip against the jamb, "and you’ll receive an eyelash curler as a gift."

Avery's continual misread and misfit attempts to connect with other women evoke a sort of awkward laughter. But that's her magic. Dana Fitz Gale gives us all the awkward and painful moments. She turns out the trash for readers to sift. Her characters are raw and vulnerable and because of this, one hopes along with them. The reader watches some win, more lose, but in the end is left wanting to try, as they do, to make a connection.

Jamie Sumner has written for the Washington Post,  Scary Mommy, Parenting Special Needs Magazine and others. She is the author of the book, Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and three children. She is a reviews editor for Literary Mama.

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