“Who were you?” a stranger in the checkout line of Trader Joe’s asks Mae, in the opening story of Rose Ann Findlen’s collection, Waiting for the Fall. The past tense amuses Mae and sets in motion her musings on the “patchwork self” she’s been stitching together since leaving the farm fifty years ago. Her daughter, Jessica, describes Mae as a straddler, a person who changes her place in society but never feels at home “either where you came from or where you’ve gone. Interesting, complicated people.” This concept runs throughout the nineteen linked, finely wrought stories. Though all the stories connect to Mae, through family or friendship, the strongest connection among them is their exploration of how these straddlers cope with change and loss, the failure of relationships, communities, and institutions, aging and death. This short story collection spans generations and landscapes, from a grandparent on a potato farm in Maine to a granddaughter adrift in a Seattle suburb.
The title story, “Waiting for the Fall,” features Mae’s return to her family farm in Missouri. It’s Christmas time, and the shambles of the farmhouse mirrors the physical state of Mae’s mother, who’s suffered a stroke, and her father, who’s going blind. Mae finds herself gasping at splintered gouges from her father’s crude home repairs or wincing at rusty screws impaling a delicate desk knob. Broad windows of her former bedroom are now covered with garish pink insulation attached with ten-penny nails “pounded crookedly in the hand-crafted 1902 woodwork.” Although her parents graciously welcome a counselor from Home Health Services, Dad’s silence makes clear he has “made up his mind not to budge.” As Mae’s mother explains, “Your dad has to have something to do.” Mae realizes, “Now the balance lay not in their interdependent strengths, but in their mutual vulnerability.” Her parents, as well as she, “wait together for one of them to fall.”
This exploration of the changing nature of family and community continues in “The Sprite,” a powerful story set in a suburban Seattle neighborhood of “mid-century modern houses sprawling across large tree-lined lots.” Community efforts to block construction of a truck stop have proven futile, “a huge, ugly complex forcing itself onto the neighborhood” with its accompanying “noise, carbon pollution, prostitution and drug deals.” Residents, David and Harold, have caught glimpses of someone living in the woods near the truck stop. Clearly homeless and vulnerable, she reminds them of a sprite; they worry how someone so thin can survive the rainy season. Harry sets out food on a potting table and moves a large FedEx box into a dry corner near the house to provide the Sprite with shelter. She responds by leaving them bouquets of the neighbors’ chrysanthemums. Findlen weaves the story seamlessly so that we gradually recognize the Sprite’s connection to Mae, which is confirmed through a piece of clothing.
When we read good fiction, we enter the mind of another, and we experience another world. That is one of the pleasures of this collection. Each story reveals more about the world of the characters, adding another layer to our understanding. We come to know and love them, to worry about their dilemmas, their choices, the outcomes of their decisions. We connect with these characters, just as they are connected to Mae. These stories mirror the author’s journey from farm kid to university educator, and her writing represents and gives insight to a certain time and place. She speaks not only to those of us who came of age in the “tumultuous 1960s,” but also to those “who seek to understand them better.”