By Anjali Becker
The title story of Peg Pursell’s new collection of short fiction, A Girl Goes into the Forest (Dzanc Books, 2019), opens with an unnamed girl following a male figure into the forest, “moving in the direction where perhaps she imagined the rest of her life waited. So ready for something to happen.” The “old secret cottage” they were evidently aiming for has long since collapsed, so they spend the night on the hard ground. Toward the end of the short piece, the girl thinks that eventually, “It might turn summer and she’d have survived the season.” The girl has ventured beyond whatever home she might have known and is searching for something, although what exactly that is, beyond survival, is unclear, both to her and to us. What is clear is that the stories to come will explore the emotions that drove so many young girls in the fairy tales of old to leave their safe little hamlets and to venture out into the forest of the unknown.
There are seventy-eight short stories collected in A Girl Goes into the Forest, many of them less than two pages in length. The collection is divided into eight sections, each headed up by an epitaph drawn from Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen,” which provides a thematic link for that section. Like the girl in the title story, the rest of Pursell’s characters are all searching for something: some contend with loneliness and with feelings of abandonment and failure; some struggle against the confines of their own narrow lives, unsure exactly what they’re looking for but certain that their current lot in life isn’t it.
Women are the central protagonists in nearly all of these stories, and like a lot of media created in recent years, an undercurrent of female rage flows through A Girl Goes into the Forest. The girls in these stories are beginning to understand the cruelty and unfairness that they will face in a male-dominated world; the adult women are already well aware—in some cases they are trying to fight for their own path forward and in other cases, they’ve become bitterly resigned to the futility of it all. Additionally, many stories examine the mother-daughter relationship at various stages: a mother putting aside her own hopes for her future in the face of the need to care for her newborn child above all else; a daughter learning to avoid an abusive mother’s anger and hatred; a daughter trying to figure out how to fake happiness in front of her judgmental mother; a daughter tending to her dying mother; several stories about mothers whose adult daughters have become estranged for reasons the mothers cannot understand. These last stories tended to feel more repetitive than insightful, which I found surprising because Pursell is usually successful at illuminating different perspectives from similar overarching themes.
Fathers and daughters also feature in A Girl Goes into the Forest, but in nearly every instance, Pursell shows us a fractured relationship, as with a father who is unable or unwilling to understand his daughter to the further detriment of their relationship, such as in “Wedding Gift,” which begins with a father “capitulating” to his daughter’s request that he walk her down the aisle at her wedding and culminates in his refusal to allow her to back out of the marriage on the day of. In that story, the daughter is unable to break free, but in “My Father and His Beautiful Slim Brunettes,” the protagonist leaves her small, suffocating town and her dysfunctional family, headed up by her philandering father, and finds success as a musician. The last lines of the story illustrate how her success may inspire another member of her family to break free as well: “What I remember about leaving the den was seeing in my peripheral vision something new and raw on [my nephew’s] face that, later, as I recalled it, as I often did, I liked to think was a spark of an idea about how he could be.”
Pursell has a gift for incisive, unflinching observation, rendered in painfully lyrical prose. This is especially true of stories wherein the characters have not managed to break free from their circumstances and instead exist in a sort of purgatory of resignation, such as the protagonists of “A Pair of Sisters,” two women who eek out an existence on a farm, waiting for rain that will not come. Even so, the stark language Pursell uses evokes its own sense of beauty among the bleakness when she writes, “The air reeks of diesel. The older sister cuts the engine and a blister of caws erupts in the silence. The wedge of crows lifts from the bare-limbed apple tree. They have other places. The younger sister watches their black wings disappear, tiny dots that vanish in the sere stratosphere. They might almost have been imagined.”
The length of these stories varies from a paragraph to several pages long. Even in a few sentences, Pursell ably evokes an entire world that hints at a fullness and richness beyond what we’re shown on the page. However, I tended to enjoy the longer stories in the collection more; I liked being able to stay longer with the characters that Pursell draws so vividly, whereas the shortest stories in the collection provide just a snapshot of a world that I want to spend more time in. Even though Purcell usually manages to tell a whole story in even the shortest stories, after a while, it became a little jarring to be constantly jumping in and out of different characters’ heads and different stories. Oddly, the brevity of these stories actually meant that I found it more difficult to read the book continuously because I had to keep mentally resetting after every page or so.
However, this is all to say that A Girl Goes into the Forest merely requires a bit more concentration or perseverance than one would normally expect from a story collection. The way Pursell uses language and the oftentimes bittersweet but always true-to-life observations that she draws within the pages of these stories makes the collection worth the effort.
Anjali Becker spent the first three decades of her life in the Midwest, growing up in Minnesota, getting her B.A. from Northwestern University, and then refusing to leave Chicago despite living through several Snowpocalypses/Polar Vortexes. She’s since lived in South Africa and Malaysia, where she learned how to drive on the other side of the road and became obsessed with birdwatching. She finds herself now in New Jersey, which is not a sentence her younger self would ever have imagined writing. She’s an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at UCR Palm Desert, and her Instagram is too boring to bother linking to here.