Burning Girls and Other Stories: Great opening, strong close, uneven in between

Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica SchanoesBurning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes

Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica SchanoesVeronica Schanoes’ collection Burning Girls and Other Stories (2021) started strong, hit a rough patch for a lengthy time, then ended strong. It is, therefore, the epitome of the mixed bag. Of the thirteen tales, I found one to be a standout, two others good, a few solid ones and a number that didn’t do anything for me. I won’t go through each one, but here are my responses to several of the stories.

“Among the Thorns”: This is the opening piece and is also the one I thought stood out amongst the collection. Not only is it a strong opening story, but it’s also a killer opening line and paragraph:

They made my father dance in thorns before they killed him.

I used to think that this was a metaphor, that they beat him with thorny vines, perhaps. But I was wrong about that.

They made him dance.

The story is set in the 17th Century and narrated by a young Jewish girl whose family lives in a carefully calibrated home: “not too small and not too big … a nice home, but not too nice … ‘Too nice and they are jealous’ [my mother] told me, ‘But not nice enough, and they won’t come and do business.’” That same sort of calculation drives all her parents’ choices — “’Too many of too close together’ [my mother] said, ‘and they think we’re plotting against them. Of course, they don’t like it when we move too far into their places either. I do what I can to strike the right balance.’” It isn’t enough, though, as that opening paragraph warns us, and so when her father is murdered by the people of Dornburg where he was doing business, young Ittele swears to her Uncle Leyb she “will kill them all. Every one.” She will need the help of a goddess to do so, and even then many years will pass until she has the opportunity to fulfill her vow, and perhaps as well to choose mercy. It’s a powerful story with a strong voice at the center, a vividly recreated time period, and one that makes I think the best use of the reworked fairy/folktales that are incorporated into so many of these tales.

The two good stories are also historical pieces. “Phosphorus” follows a young Irish girl who is dying and ever more disfigured due to working with the title product in a match factory. The pace of her decline will seemingly preclude her from seeing the effects of the women’s strike, but magic and the love of a family member, along with a heart-rending sacrifice, lets her live long enough for first a triumphant and then a moving close. The title story that closes the collection, meanwhile, offers up echoes of the first story, as a Jewish girl who has learned to be a witch from her grandmother must flee the pogroms with her sister to New York City. It turns out they have not fled far enough to escape a demon from their homeland. Similar to “Among the Thorns”, the Old World part of the story is vivid and compelling. The middle section sags a little — the language more flat, the plot more trite, the characters more thin — and the final section maybe piggybacks a bit too much on a historical event for its power, though the metaphor presented conveying the idea that the New World has its own demons, worse than those of the Old World and born not of magic and fay creatures but of humans and their systems, is a strong and lingering concept.

A number of stories fell into what I’d call the “solid” category. “Emma Goldman Takes Tea with the Baba Yaga” is an interesting mix of non-fiction and fiction, though it doesn’t feel fully mined for its potential. “Lily Glass” ended the long run of stories I didn’t much care for, and had some nice images, but didn’t feel particularly original. “Alice: A Fantasia” is a nice stylistic and lyrical piece while “Serpents”, probably the most surreal piece in the collection, is expressionistically weird but has some of my favorite sentence-level writing, and I quite liked how it played with so many folk and fairy tales. It may have been my favorite of this group.

That left seven stories that either fell flat or that I out-and-out disliked for various reasons, including but not limited to pacing issues, flat language, or being too obvious and/or blunt. I’d also say that the overall collection suffers a bit from the stories being a bit too similar in tone, characters, and in their usage of/reference to fairy tales.

I never expect a story collection to nail every piece. I’m thrilled when three-quarters are good to very good, and mostly satisfied when that drops to half. That’s about where I am here with Burning Girls. I don’t think therefore I’d recommend it as a purchase, but I would definitely recommend it as a library book, with my advice being to read the opening and closing stories first (I know, I know, they order them for a reason … ), then read the rest in whatever order you want, but not allowing the weaker stories to cause you to put the book down without at least trying the others.

Published in March 2021. A Most Anticipated in 2021 Pick for The Independent | Buzzfeed | The Nerd Daily. When we came to America, we brought anger and socialism and hunger. We also brought our demons. In Burning Girls and Other Stories, Veronica Schanoes crosses borders and genres with stories of fierce women at the margins of society burning their way toward the center. This debut collection introduces readers to a fantasist in the vein of Karen Russell and Kelly Link, with a voice all her own. Emma Goldman—yes, that Emma Goldman—takes tea with the Baba Yaga and truths unfold inside of exquisitely crafted lies. In “Among the Thorns,” a young woman in seventeenth century Germany is intent on avenging the brutal murder of her peddler father, but discovers that vengeance may consume all that it touches. In the showstopping, awards finalist title story, “Burning Girls,” Schanoes invests the immigrant narrative with a fearsome fairytale quality that tells a story about America we may not want—but need—to hear. Dreamy, dangerous, and precise, with the weight of the very oldest tales we tell, Burning Girls and Other Stories introduces a writer pushing the boundaries of both fantasy and contemporary fiction.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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