Barrelhouse Reviews: A Girl Goes into the Forest by Peg Alford Pursell

Review by Ann Davis-Rowe


Dzanc Books
July 16, 2019
Paperback / 200 pp / $16.95

Readers are easily swept away by an epic narrative with characters they truly get to know, their histories and thought processes completely laid out over 500 pages. But in A Girl Goes into the Forest, Peg Alford Pursell creates characters equally complex and real, whole worlds—sometimes in less than a page. This 240-page book contains 78 stories. It is altogether a different sort of feat from epic storytelling for an author to communicate all she wants to say in such a limited fashion and to trust that the reader will follow with her. 

One method Pursell uses to guide the reader through her forest is to group the stories into sections, each section with a dramatic and haunting title that poses its own questions. The first is “How Far She Has Come in the Wide World Since She Started Out in Her Naked Feet,” and the majority of the stories in it deal with the struggles of mother/daughter relationships. 

In “Smoke, Must, Dust,” the maternal narrator states of her daughter that “she and I were always in opposition, barely managing to tamp down the conflict when others neared.” In “A Man with Horses,” the mother acknowledges conflict with her daughter more obliquely, her daughter “who had always seemed, from the start, too clever to choose comfort.” The mother has great hope for the future—“I was contented, even triumphant” as her daughter prepares to go away to college, saying, “but somehow we’d made it through, and she was on the verge of making her own way in the world. I imagined talking deeply in the days to come, learning what made her feel empty, what made her feel full.”

Different mothers, different daughters, same struggle. Both mothers are left by their daughters, one as expected, one as a surprise. Despite their different relationships with their daughters, the mothers are similarly resigned to the future. The story reflects back to narration in “Old Church by the Sea,” the first story in this section: “I always think I’ll circle around to the exact explanation for what went wrong. Having and wanting at the same time—that’s what it was to carry my daughter inside me.”

The last two stories of this section are narrated by women whose romantic relationships are as fraught as mother-daughter ones. In “Astronomy at Desert Springs,” a woman’s lack of warm clothing under the cold night sky is a metaphor for a coldness that has crept into her marriage. “She thought she had [dressed warmly], but the clothing (long sleeves, down-filled vest) wasn’t enough, like so many things lately.” 

And in the story that closes this section, “Unknown Animals,” a woman ruminates on how her partner’s face—and perhaps her own, as well—has changed. “Only momentary beauty existed, an instant of respite with the sole purpose of demonstrating its elusiveness.” In one of the more direct moments of the entire collection, the narrator says that “Love was like rainfall, either softening the ground or washing it away.”

Two particularly successful stories are both in the “She Only Dabbled in Magic to Amuse Herself” section. One tells of a cake that does not appreciate being in a story that gives it “consciousness without agency.” The cake feels bad for the woman who will soon come out to find a squirrel has gotten into her tomato plant. And despite the story’s title being “Under the Accumulating Sunlight,” the cake feels its icing melt, not from the sun, but from empathy with the to-be-disappointed woman. Meanwhile, we are told that the squirrel “just wants what it wants” as it eyes the pink icing. How rude for the creature with no deeper thought to be able to do what it likes, whereas the cake has all the feelings but none of the power. 

The story that immediately follows echoes the idea of lack of agency, of a life where things happen to one instead of by one, and not just through its title, “Gilded Cage.” The main character “was believed to be a witch because of her hunched back” and also “because she was alone and no one had ever been inside her cottage at the edge of the forest and no one knew what she did there.” The woman, nicknamed Birdie by her father many years ago, keeps canaries; as she keeps them in their cage, she is kept in hers by her disability and solitary nature. But her life wasn’t always solitary. The story is less than three pages long, but it describes her rough-but-gentle father, her faithless lover, and the devoted woman who helped the family keep house. It also offers observations about human nature—how once children learned to tie their shoes before kindergarten, but perhaps those parents who put their kids in Velcro are the same ones who don’t care about cursive; how death can be kind, keeping people from seeing pain come to those they love. 

Most of the stories in this book have female protagonists, and while they are all flawed, Pursell treats them with more care—as in the mothers who lost their daughters—than the fewer male protagonists. In “Our Losses” and  “A House on the Market,” the men realize the errors they have made in their relationships, but do nothing to fix the issue. In “You Can Do Anything,” a man thinks he realizes where he went wrong and how he can fix it, but certain clues throughout, such as the way he imposes his worldview onto others—he is very proud to ask how much his financial clients are “spending” on entertainment when he really means “wasting”—that he is projecting. In “Love Carnival,” a husband is so focused what his wife does that he doesn’t like, he can’t appreciate what she is doing to work on their relationship. Rather than finding pleasure in his wife trying to seduce him, “she used her sex appeal to unfair advantage…once again, he hadn’t even finished what he’d had to say!”

Pursell’s economy of words often left me wanting more. This isn’t a criticism; instead, I feel it’s the key to this collection’s magic. I am normally a very fast reader, but I had to take a lot of time to pause and process. I often felt like I wasn’t smart enough to fully comprehend what I had just read, much less create a summary for you, the review reader.

And while I was, admittedly, sometimes frustrated, I was more often fascinated. Especially as rereading brought emphasis to new words, often suddenly unlocking a passage I struggled with. One such story was “Baby Bird.” This story begins with a sentence fragment and a question painting a grim picture—“Gray sheets, grime, chill of metal. Smell of ancient burned toast. What’s a home anyway?”—then moves on to the equally distressing picture of a nest fallen to the ground, empty, but with “the darkish down of the absent bird” still remaining. And then a young girl appears, alone, improperly dressed for the weather, and bleeding. When I first read this story, I could only focus on the girl, leaving bloody footprints as she traveled to and from a dismal house. Only upon rereading did it dawn on me that the title was “Baby Bird” and I was able to fully appreciate the connection between the girl and the missing bird. The story ends: “Where is the bird? Where did she go?”

Many of the characters in this book have no name. This may lead the reader to wonder if they appear in multiple stories. Are we reading about the same person in a different point in their life? Or the same event from another point of view? The first two stories in section six, “He Tried to Say His Prayers But All He Could Remember Were His Multiplication Tables” are especially evocative in this manner. “One Early Summer Morning” begins with a daughter mentioning her father as her mother lies dying, and “Unraveled” is about a man unable to put away the sweater of a woman no longer with him. Is this the same man from the first story, and the mother the owner of the sweater? Of course, Pursell doesn’t say the woman in “Unraveled” has died, just that she was recently there and isn’t now. 

When I got past the need to figure it all out, to create a cohesive plotline from these very different fragments, I saw that the through-line of A Girl Goes into the Forest is basic human longing. Even if it’s just a longing to know more. After all, in every fairytale we’ve ever been told, from Hansel and Gretel, abandoned by a cruel stepmother, to Beauty, trying to save her father, a girl never goes into the forest because she is perfectly content with life. 

Ann Davis-Rowe has been a voracious reader from a very young age and holds a Masters degree in Library Science. She's also a secretary, actress, home cook, and co-guardian to the snuggliest puppies around.