How Strange a Season: Fiction
Over the last ten years, Megan Mayhew Bergman has proven to be a damn fine short-story writer. Her stories have appeared in such literary magazines as AGNI, the Kenyon Review, and Ploughshares, and, more recently, the Sewanee Review, Narrative magazine, and even O, The Oprah Magazine, and they’ve been collected in The Best American Short Stories. After Bergman’s first story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise (2012), I began waiting for her first novel. In 2015, she published a second collection called Almost Famous Women, a wonderful collection, but still no novel. So, I waited.
Besides being a fiction writer, Bergman, who lives on a small farm in Vermont, is also a journalist. She’s written non-fiction about famous and almost-famous women and nature and the environment for The New Yorker, the Guardian, and the Paris Review. She teaches literature and environmental writing at Middlebury College, in Vermont.
Her latest book is another story collection, How Strange a Season. It consists of seven imaginative and compelling short stories, and, finally, a provocative short novel, called Indigo Run, which makes me believe she has a novel in her.
Indigo Run is the longest fictional narrative Bergman has ever published. That novella and the book’s shortest story, “The Night Hag,” are each brand new and related in that they include a common character. Indigo Run is a history of the Glass family that begins in 1752. That’s when Marlon Glass survives a storm, regains consciousness in the woods of an old South Carolina plantation, and eventually buys it, christening it Stillwood. Despite beginning with this brief escapade of the eighteenth-century patriarch, Bergman’s third-person narrative focuses on the women of the Glass family: Mary-Grace, her daughter Helena-Raye, and Helena’s daughter Sally-Ann, nicknamed Skip. Although the story occasionally harks back to the Civil War, most of it happens shortly after World War I, when Win Spangler, a Texan, meets and weds Helena Glass, marrying into a real Southern family. The story ends in 1954, but in the meantime, love and heartbreak permeate their Southern home in the form of marriage and adultery, and Bergman adds a touch of horror with a ghostly figure called the Night Hag.
Bergman reveals the origins of the hag in the tale “The Night Hag.” She’s a cousin of Eve, not born from a rib, but from “a fish egg in a stream that cut through a verdant, coastal forest.” When she came of age, she lived in a tree, and was supposed to stay there until she found true love. One day, a lover, who’d been bringing her presents, comes by, grabs her by the foot, and leaps on top of her. He abandons her and the horrible memory of Him stays with her for a hundred years. “She scared up storms when she remembered His face. Her greatest wish was to pierce her lover’s chest with one hand and disembowel Him....”
Women of all sorts populate this book: artists, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, and environmentalists, each realistic in strange and memorable ways. To re-coin Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s phrase: “Well-behaved women seldom make good literature.” In this collection, there is no story called “How Strange a Season.” Instead, the book’s title comes from a poem by the Italian poet Patrizia Cavalli:
I am struck by how strange a season it is
And by how my body felt the cold.
I’m still waiting for that full-length novel, but there’s nothing wrong with writing short stories; it seemed to work out well for Alice Munro and Raymond Carver. And not too long ago, Danielle Evans, who is primarily a short-story writer, published a story collection The Office of Historical Corrections, which also included her first novella.
Bergman’s stories in this latest collection are traditional only in length and narrative form. Each includes a different sort of woman as its protagonist. In “Workhorse,” Marianna, whose mother left her money, owns a boutique floral business. Despite trying to accumulate high-end clients to buy her extravagant installations, the business is not going well. Her “gently estranged husband” Zach is out of rehab for an addiction to Oxycodone, and a bit of a pest. They had been planning a divorce for a few years, but neither of the two liked paperwork. Her father has retired from the banking business and decided to move back to Sardinia. He offers to go over her balance sheet because maybe her world should revolve around profit, not art. But when things aren’t going well for him, he wants her to visit.
In “Wife Days,” Farrah still swims competitively in her thirties, but she’s never made a career of it. She makes a deal with her realtor husband: she’ll give him four good “Wife Days” a week if he leaves her alone to do whatever she wants for the other three. Farrah, who is flirty and sexy, isn’t as playful as you might expect. She suffers from depression, but she has been institutionalized only once, eighteen years ago. Swimming serves one purpose for her: “It holds the crazy at bay. She’s convinced that swimming beats back the insanity, that exhaustion brings her clarity, and the only way to keep this clarity is to swim harder and longer.”
In “The Heirloom,” Regan inherited an Arizona ranch from her mother Molly, who had built an “Earth Home in a community of environmentally minded ranches owned by single women … They called Molly’s place ‘The House of Fallen Women’ because it had become a haven for divorcées and women who’d baled on a prescribed life and ended up in the desert in search of real freedom.” The ranch was too expensive to run. So Regan creates a playground for “Basic Rich Men” to work out their feelings by using heavy machinery to stack tires, bulldoze holes, or, for eight-hundred dollars, crush cars with a big excavator. At first, she thought men wouldn’t take her seriously because she was nice and petite, so she took an “online power dynamics course with a dominatrix and learned how to wield her power.” Regan would hide a fake family heirloom that one of the men would discover and give all that digging and destroying meaning: You were not just a manly man; you were helpful and heroic.
It’s the grandmother who leaves Hayes a glass house on the California coast in “Inheritance.” Grandmother didn’t love Hayes the most, she simply had no one else to will the place to. As she tries to temporarily adjust to the community and figure out what to do with an inheritance whose property taxes she can’t afford, she discovers an old man who suffers from memory loss looming around her property.
Then Bergman takes us from the West Coast to Alaska and the Southeast. When Lily’s girlfriend takes off to Alaska to study the migration patterns of the endangered red knot for her PhD project, she heads to Alligator, North Carolina, to save the local fish from the dreaded lionfish in “A Taste for Lionfish.” Lily works for invasivores, and the plan is to get people to fish for and eat lionfish. Considered a “world saver,” she isn’t terribly welcomed in the town. Even Ward, who provides her with a place to stay, says she has no business down there. “You can’t go around telling people how to solve your problems. You solve them,” he says, though he has plenty of his own unsolved problems.
In “Peaches, 1979,” it’s Darcy’s first year in charge of running the orchard. Not only is it going to be a tough year harvesting, Darcy has been in her stoic father’s shoes ever since he died two years ago. Her sister Beth is in a “Christian boardinghouse for women” called Weeks Farm, her cranky evangelical mother always gives her a hard time, and her brother Daniel has been in and out of police custody since he was fifteen. Darcy figures he’s probably into drugs. What’s worse, there’s a murderer in town called the Strangler, and Darcy thinks he looks like Daniel.
In her story “Hell-Diving Women,” from her previous collection, Almost Famous Women, Bergman fictionalizes the 1940s band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. The Sweethearts were America’s first integrated female band. Now, Bergman is working on a non-fiction book about those women, and she says she’s about half-way through it. As for the novel I’ve been waiting for, she writes, “A novel will come! Indigo Run is the halfway point.”
In the meantime, read her stories.