Book Bag: ‘Reconstruction’ by Alaya Dawn Johnson; ‘I Wish My Father’ by Lesléa Newman

Staff Writer
Published: 1/21/2021 3:39:37 PM

Reconstruction by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Small Beer Press)

Alaya Dawn Johnson has an eclectic resume that would seem to mirror the way her fiction dispenses with genre boundaries by mixing fantasy, science fiction, mystery and more. The Washington, D.C. native has studied in Japan and Mexico and today lives in Mexico City, where in addition to her writing she sings in a band, Cananea.

Johnson, who studied East Asian languages and cultures at Columbia University and then earned a masters in Mesoamerican Studies in Mexico, has written for both adult and teenage readers, winning a number of awards in the process. Last year she published “Trouble the Saints,” an adult novel set in an alternate New York City in the pre-World War II years that National Public Radio calls a “knotty, painful, gorgeously told historical fantasy in which nobody’s hands are clean.”

Easthampton’s Small Beer Press has now published “Reconstruction,” a collection of eight previous short stories plus two new ones by the author. In settings that include vampires, a post-apocalyptic Mexican city hollowed out by climate change, and a U.S. Civil War encampment of Black Union soldiers, Johnson builds many of her stories around people — women in particular — who are struggling to survive in oppressive systems.

The title story, for instance, is set outside a South Carolina town during the Civil War, where the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a Union force of escaped African American slaves, saw action. The story is narrated by a young woman, Sally, a nurse and cook with the unit, and a former slave herself, who uses her grandmother’s magic to help protect the soldiers. She also mediates on anger fed by slavery and by male assumptions about women.

“The resentment I felt toward my boys — was I only a human, a fellow in this bitter struggle for our freedom, when I had been claimed by a man? — I folded inside my other angers, like a baby in swaddling,” she says. “Affront was my meat and milk that summer, though it curdled, though it teemed with flies.”

The opening story of the collection, “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i,” plumbs very different ground. The lead character, Key, is a woman in a prison camp filled with other humans, who are housed as feeding stock for the vampires that have taken over the earth. In this grim scenario, Key is despised by her fellow inmates because she “has kept herself alive by being useful in other ways” — she serves the vampires as a caretaker of the humans who provide blood.

The story has its moments of droll humor — “Hawai’i is still a resort destination, though most of its residents only go out at night” — and in a way it’s a send-up of sorts of our pop culture obsession with vampires. But otherwise it offers a very dark look at love and loss in impossible circumstances.

“Their Changing Bodies,” on the other hand, takes a lighter look at vampires, where a small group of teenage girls at a summer camp find the boys are acting increasingly strangely — and only by banding together for some grrrl power and asserting themselves can they protect themselves and teach those wayward boys a lesson.

As one critic writes of the collection, “Johnson is one of the few writers in the genre who handles high emotion without preciousness, and she brings an almost unbearable pathos to many of these stories.”

I Wish My Father by Lesléa Newman (Headmistress Press)

Six years ago, Valley poet Lesléa Newman released “I Carry My Mother,” a book-length cycle of poems in which she chronicled the experience of seeing her mother fall ill and then die, and then trying to process the yahrtzeit, or one-year anniversary, of her death.

Using a variety of forms, from sonnets to haiku to others, Newman, a former poet laureate of Northampton, examined her earliest memories of her mother to her last and the pain of finally seeing her go: “when she disappears / I taste salt / I come unmoored / the waves knock me down.”

In “I Wish My Father,” Newman has crafted an eulogy for her father, who died in 2017 at age 90, five years after her mother passed. Like the first volume, “I Wish My Father” offers a connected series of poems, all in free verse, that trace the difficult path her father had following his wife’s death, as well as the ups and downs Newman experienced trying to care for him.

The titles of Newman’s poems serve as the first line of each work, and in “For As Long As I Can,” she reflects that her father had long been a creature of habit: up each morning at the same time, eating the same breakfast, always punctually at work. But her mother’s death and his declining health combine to turn his world upside down.

Her father can no longer fathom, she writes, “how quickly he went / from husband to widower / attorney to retiree // tennis partner to spectator / driver to passenger / healthy to diabetic // hearing to practically deaf / seeing to practically blind ...”

Worse is that he has to move from being a lifelong New Yorker to a “reluctant resident” of a New Jersey residential care center for the elderly — “of what might as well / be called God’s Waiting Room.”

Following his death, Newman imagines her father meeting her mother again at a game of bridge she’s playing with friends, looking as she did when she was younger, with the two of them then rising to dance together — a fitting end to an emotional ride.

“I learned so much about my dad and my mom and their 63-year-old marriage,” Newman writes on her website. “And I learned a great deal about myself as I took on the role of caretaking a proud, stubborn Jewish man who refused to accept that his world and his role in it were rapidly changing ... The five years that [my] father outlived [my] mother were full of sorrow, frustration, anger, and sometimes even joy.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

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