Melanie Rae Thon

In This Light

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In This Light Summary

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American author Melanie Rae Thon’s short story collection In This Light: New and Selected Stories (2011) compiles stories from her previous collections, Girls in the Grass (1991) and First, Body (1997), along with three new, previously uncollected stories. Thon’s stories unfold in a wide range of settings, but they tend to focus on poor and marginalized people, often in desperate situations. The collection was well-received by critics, who felt that “this overview captures Thon at her tough, unremittingly intense, unflinching best” (Kirkus Reviews).

“Punishment” is narrated by a 90-year-old woman, looking back at an incident from her girlhood in the antebellum South. When her mother died, her baby brother needed a nurse, and her father went to a young slave, Lize, who had recently given birth. Lize says, “The man come to the shack. He say, my boy’s hungry. He pulls my dress apart at the neck, looks at my breasts like I’m some cow. He say, looks like you got plenty to spare.”

Forced to nurse the narrator’s brother, Lize doesn’t have enough milk to feed her own baby boy, who dies. Grieving and angry, Lize kills her master’s son in revenge: “When they come lookin’ for me, I don’t tell no lies. I say, I smothered him between my own breasts.”

The narrator remembers that her father “lost his legs and his mind” in the Civil War: “No, he mourned only for his own legs, kept asking where they were, as if I might know, as if I had hidden them.”

“First, Body” begins with a sex scene between Sid, a lonely Vietnam veteran and a woman recovering from alcoholism: “She’s unbuttoning his shirt, unzipping his pants, peeling him open.” From this vantage, Sid looks back to the swamps of Vietnam, where he witnessed things that have made him unable to live a normal life. He works at a hospital morgue, cleaning up after the dead. Lifting the corpse of an obese woman, intending to be “the last person alive who will touch her with tenderness,” Sid suffers a permanent injury. Sid’s reflections are tied together by bodies and the way they bear the marks of life.

Two of the collection’s stories take place on or around Native American reservations. The first, “Confession for Raymond Good Bird,” tells the story of an all-but untrained first responder, who can manage forest fires but is barely able to cope with emergency calls on the reservation: “We’ve been wandering half our lives, dazed and unemployed for a century. When the smoke signals rise, when the fire is somewhere else, we give thanks for strange mercies.” The second, “Father, Lover, Deadman, Dreamer,” opens on a reservation, where the white, female protagonist gets drunk. On her way home, her car hits a Native American man on a lonely road, and she leaves him to die. Years pass, but the woman, “living on whiskey and smoke,” continues to be haunted by the man she killed: “I swear, even now, when I touch my bare skin, when I smell lilacs, I can feel him, how warm he was, how his skin became my shadow, how I wear it still.”

In “Iona Moon,” frail young Willy is terrified that his fate will resemble that of Matt Fry, a boy who was sent to a juvenile detention center: “Until then, Willy didn’t know that if you did a bad enough thing, your parents could decide they didn’t want you anymore.’’ Meanwhile, country girl Iona craves love. When she picks Willy up on the roadside, she cannot resist forcing the vulnerable boy into a sexual encounter: “He said, ‘Where are you going?’ And she said, ‘The river.’ He told her he needed to get home; it was almost dark. Iona said, ‘I know.’ He told her he meant it; but his voice was feeble, and she kept plowing through the haze of dusk, faster and faster, till the whole seat was shaking.” Later, he publicly rejects and humiliates her.

“Necessary Angels” also concerns a desperate and failed relationship: white Dora falls in love with an older black boy and becomes pregnant with his child, only for his friends and family to reject her for her whiteness. Dora takes refuge in an abandoned refrigerator, an item like her, trapped in a hard, white shell.

“Heavenly Creatures” follows Didi Kincaid, a woman whose neighbors despise her for having children by three different men. For these neighbors, it only makes matters worse that Didi takes in homeless children from all over the county: “Didi’s transgressions wounded our spirits. She fed the children no mother could tame. She loved them for a night or for an hour, just as she loved the men who shared all her beds in all those motel rooms, and this terrifying, transient love…his endless offering of the body and the soul and the self was dangerous…If she was good, then we were guilty.’’

Runaway children are the subjects of several more stories in this collection. “Nobody’s Daughters” is narrated by teenage runaway Nadine, whose life has been reduced to the sheerest loneliness and need: “That night I found a lover. I mean I found a man who didn’t pay, who let me sleep in his car instead.’’ In “Xmas, Jamaica Plain,” a group of runaways breaks into a house to escape the cold, where one of them dies of an overdose. “In These Woods” is narrated by another runaway to her dead sister, Clare, who speaks back when it counts: “When the pink nurse stopped to piss, my sister Clare whispered, Look at him—he’ll kill you if he can. I hid in the woods by the lake full of stumps. I didn’t move. I let the sky pour through me. He called the name I’d said was mine.”