Ann Davis-Rowe

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.

Barrelhouse Reviews: The Beast's Heart by Leife Shallcross

Review by Ann Davis-Rowe


THE BEAST’S HEART / Leife Shallcross / February 12, 2019 / 416 pp / Paperback / $15.00 / Ace / 978-0440001775

We all know Beauty and the Beast, whether from the Disney cartoon, the Disney Broadway musical, the Disney live-action film, Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter, or one of the other numerous retellings of the original French story published in 1740 – although that in itself was based on other stories dating back some 4,000 years.

Leife Shallcross brings us yet another variation of La Belle et la Bête, this one from la bête’s side (in case the title didn’t give that away).  While a creative take, it’s also an immediate uphill battle for the author because everyone knows the story.  Plus, Beast isn’t exactly the most likeable of heroes, anti- or no; after all, as all versions of the story go, his curse derives from his haughty and disdainful nature.

I’m sure you already know the plot here: young woman gives up her freedom to save her father’s after he stumbles upon a mysterious castle in the woods. I did appreciate some of Shallcross’ attempts to make her retelling original. Whereas Disney’s Belle is bookish and isolated, Shallcross’ Isabeau falls more in line with the original Beauty, a jill of all trades who is responsible for family housekeeping thanks to her pretentious elder sisters.

I enjoyed how Shallcross introduced the sisters, here named Marie and Claude, as one-dimensional side characters, then built them into more well-rounded women. However, the description of their sisterly teasing about their respective gentlemen callers quickly grew repetitive.

Also repetitive were the descriptions of how Isabeau and Beast spent their days. I get it; Isabeau agreed to spend a year with Beast, so a year must be transcribed. Goodness knows my days and nights are largely spent going from the office to the couch, lather, rinse, repeat. There are character and relationship developments built in to Isabeau and the Beast’s music and reading sessions and walks and dinners, but at times it did feel like it took a year to read them.

Emma Watson, who played Belle in Disney’s live-action film, eloquently argued against Beauty and the Beast as a story of Stockholm Syndrome, saying that Belle kept her independence and wasn’t afraid to challenge the Beast’s hissy fits and demands. Shallcross’ Isabeau does that as well, as Beast – again, repeatedly – points out her defiance and fondness of teasing.

However, even in doing so, we see how Beast is always looking to have the upperhand instead of building a partnership. When Isabeau falls asleep while he reads aloud a botanical book she picked out that didn’t entertain him, “Feeling somehow easier, now that I had gained this advantage over her, I smiled in amusement and continued reading, thinking of how I could tease her when she awoke.”

Also, more than anecdotes of Isabeau’s spunkiness, we’re often given lengthy descriptions of her bad moods and melancholy, of nights full of nightmares and the resulting insomnia causing her great distress that only the Beast can soothe. While Shallcross shows Marie and Claude becoming whole characters – through Beast spying on them, which is a whole other issue – we only see Isabeau becoming more dependent on him.

Granted, he is the narrator, so he is the hero/victim of his own story. Beast wants Isabeau to be dependent on him, so that’s what he focuses on accomplishing. However, it felt like a great disservice to Isabeau. Essentially, all we are told of her is that she selflessly cared for her family and then for Beast. Pretty, moderately talented in music and drawing, and servile. What more could any man ask for?

Which brings me to my biggest beef. Beast is apparently supposed to be our hero, not just the hero of his own internal narrative, when it turns out that he was cursed by a fairy because he was cold and distant and haughty. In Shallcross’ version, he acted this way because he was afraid of following in the footsteps of his father, a lecherous drunk.

The young man saw how using women was a terrible thing. So, rather than attempting to be a better man than his father, he just ignored women altogether.

If Beast were living today, he’d be the dude arguing that “we can’t talk to women at all because #metoo.” We’ve already seen this sentiment expressed on Capitol Hill and in other industries, termed  “The Pence Effect” on Wall Street, where employers are essentially prohibiting women from advancing because they’re afraid to be alone in a room with them.

Once I had this realization, it was much harder to ignore the fact that Beast doesn’t actually evolve. He quits walking on all fours in the forest and moves back into his castle in an attempt to regain some semblance of humanity, but that doesn’t change his beastly attitude toward women. I couldn’t ignore that Isabeau is reduced to early Betty Draper, decorative and inoffensive, and we should be grateful he loves her despite her moods. I mean, when she finds the music room, she quickly gives up on the harp and lute before re-devoting her musical studies to the virginal - “...she began to dabble on the other instruments, but the virginal remained her favorite.” I’m not even looking up how popular that sort of keyboard was in France in the late 1700s because come on.

If Beast had learned from his mistakes, if he had grown spiritually to see that he was a conceited ass before, I would have been perfectly happy. I’m sure Shallcross and other readers will think it is a plucky little twist giving Beast more of a backstory and, well, heart. And I am willing to admit that I am probably biased here, due to my ever-increasing frustration with rich men of European descent who never seem to own up to the mistakes of their youth.

But to blame Beast’s curse not on being afraid he would turn into a monster like his father - to insist that he was really a victim all along and that mean old fairy should have known better - that I just can’t swallow.  It made what was a sweet enough, if slow and derivative, book turn to ashes in my eyes. That fairy tale is already visible across our news outlets too much, and this princess is having none of it.


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.