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The Woman in the Woods

From The Georgia Review, Winter 2007

Ann Joslin Williams is the daughter of Thomas Williams (1926–90), who wrote with such tough-minded love about life in rural New England. (Graywolf Press published his collected stories, Leah, New Hampshire, in 1992). His daughter’s first book, The Woman in the Woods: Linked Stories, winner of the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, is clearly a tribute to both of her parents, who on their own built a log cabin in the shadow of a mountain. In these twelve stories—most are set in the fictional Leah and its forested and mountainous environs—that modest cabin looms large.

Despite the many autobiographical elements, however, Williams veers off into deeper and darker narratives. Like her real-life father, the fictional father here is a writer and college professor, but unlike his real-life model he dies at a relatively young age, leaving his wife and two children—twelve-year-old David and ten-year-old Kate—with a painfully bifurcated sense of time: everything, from the mundane to the momentous, comes with a “before” or an “after” attached. Years later, time is again re-contoured by the death of the adult Kate’s four-year-old son. For two generations of grieving women, then, the log house stands as a literal and metaphorical refuge against time and loss.

Although the majority of the stories proceed chronologically from around the time of the father’s death to the present, they are framed by two first-person narratives set in the present—where the now forty-year-old Kate struggles to exist in a precarious in-between state: turning her back on the past and trying not to imagine what’s to come. At the outset, her son has been dead for four years, her husband Thomas is on the other side of the world—his response to the wrenching loss—and she is living for the summer in the cabin her parents built. With the arrival of fall she’ll have to return to town with—or without—her lover, the fire watchman on the mountain who talks in his sleep: “Once I heard my name. And then another word which could have been marry, or merry, or Mary.”

Williams’ prose is supple, spare, and quietly elegant. Drawing much of her imagery and symbolism from the natural world, she creates a distinctive meld of emotion, time, and place. The opening story’s title, “Cold-Fire,” refers to “a fire laid, but unlit.” Such a suspended state is one Kate would like to remain in for as long as possible: “I remind myself: Don’t imagine anything that hasn’t happened yet. Don’t think about the past. Stay in the space between then and what’s-to-come—it’s the only relief.” This self-directive works only intermittently. When yet another postcard arrives from her world-traveling husband, Kate asks herself, “Do I miss him? What I miss is the impossible— all of us alive and happy and moving into our abruptly ended future. So, there’s no point in dwelling on it. Though hope can still get her hands on me, gripping and greedy.”

The stories that take place within the frame of “Cold-Fire” and “Cold-Fire: Epilogue” occupy that space “between then and what’s-to-come.” Thus, “Before This Day Were Many Days” begins with the father’s death and almost immediately moves back in time to when he was alive, a fiercely protective parent. Lying in bed the night her father dies, Kate recalls the day just past and her father’s snatching her back from the edge of a deep cellar hole. Hours later, his truck plunges him to his death when the bridge he’s crossing is washed out by floodwaters; years later her son, in love with the fantasy of flying, dies when he hurls himself from a rooftop. In several stories, canoes overturn; in one, David’s teacher skates on too-thin ice and is drowned. These many repetitions and variations on falling bring home the tenuousness of life, the nearness of death.

"The Woman in the Woods” introduces yet another set of mirrorlike images separated by time, age, and circumstance. A preteen David encounters a woman wearing only a flimsy housecoat, wandering in the snow-covered woods near the family’s cabin. This is the first story in which David’s sense of self and family comes to the fore. Quietly grieving over his father’s recent death and his mother’s deep depression and alarming weight loss—“She was so skinny; there was no meat on her bones to keep her warm”—and bewildered by his own burgeoning sexuality, David is both drawn to and frightened by the silent woman who refuses all offers of help. At story’s end she is rescued, an ambulance takes her away, and David’s family goes on as before—or perhaps not. While they watched the rescue workers leave, “a cold air came up behind, at first trailing them, then draping over David’s shoulders like the weight of an arm, trying to pull him into other invisible worlds. Or perhaps it only meant to guide him, all of them, as an act of rescue.” Here, as in the closing paragraphs of the book’s epilogue, cold and winter are aligned not with death but with an invigorating change of life’s course.

There are, in fact, several women in the woods, sometimes solitary, sometimes in close association with each other. Along with the strange, mute, lost, and seemingly suicidal wanderer, there is David’s mother, who has sunk into herself following her husband’s death. In “Wishbones,” after two months alone, the mother has stopped eating and stays in the cabin much of the time. The young Kate narrates, Williams keeping the language scrupulously close to the perspective of a child whose teacher is the natural world. The result is a sharply etched portrait created by an elemental palette: Kate’s mother’s nose is “a pointy beak,” and her eyes reflecting the sun “glowed like owl eyes down a flashlight beam, glassy and haunted.” “Now she had a different face, the hard shell beneath coming through,” and when her daughter tries to coax her into eating, “she turned toward my voice, but her eyes were dull—little ponds covered with film. . . . When she swallowed a thin, V-shaped bone in her neck sank, disappeared below the surface, then bobbed up again. It put me in mind of a wishbone.”

Years later, the adult Kate will live alone in that cabin, wondering if she’ll turn into her marijuana-growing elderly neighbor Bella, who “has a grin full of gaps and gold that can turn an astray tramper’s skin to goose pimples.” They share a love for the woods and for the solitary life, “but sometimes I look at her and worry. Will I be her one day? Old and alone. Face of a dried apple?” Finally, there is Anna, the forty-year old David’s love interest, who visits the cabin for the first time and wonders what, if any, relationship is possible with a man who “hasn’t been completely honest with Anna, or himself, about a previous relationship—one he hasn’t quite ended yet, and so previous isn’t the right word at all. Ongoing would be more accurate.”

Past, present, and a future denied are deftly interwoven when Williams turns to the all-too-short life of Kate’s young son, Tommy, so in love with a bedtime story about a boy who could fly that, umbrella in hand, he jumped from a rooftop. The child’s death is made all the more wrenching by how alive he is in his mother’s memory, which allows us to see, hear, feel, and smell the child in her arms. As the book draws to a close, time periods collide in “I Never Will,” a story that encompasses Kate’s affair with and marriage to Thomas, her pregnancy, the all-too-short life of their son, and his death. The pages are full of white spaces presaging the many jumps backward and forward. Sometimes Kate lies in bed alone in the cabin, in the present; other times, she is alongside Thomas with Tommy’s birth and death still to come. The story is a tour de force in which Kate both remembers and resists remembering: “I don’t want to remember very far ahead. I don’t want to go past our son.”

In the penultimate tale, “A Story About a Boat That Came Out of the Night,” Williams again disregards the chronological to return to a time when Kate and David’s father is alive. Out on the river one night they are swamped by a motorboat, their canoe capsizes, and the three are thrown into the water. Later that night, David wonders if his father will write about what happened: “Or maybe David could write that story himself. If he did, it would be about more than just that. It would be about all sorts of things. Oh yes, it would be much more than that.” It might, in fact, be the very book in which this and other equally memorable stories appear.
Kathleen Snodgrass

Ann Joslin Williams’s writing is authentic, hard-won and amazingly effective. Her stories will work their way into your heart like shards of migrating iron. They are true and artful – I admire them for how the stitch of words recedes, and the people inside emerge. The Woman in the Woods is the most courageous collection I’ve seen in a long time.
--Robert Olmsted author of Stay Here With Me

What I admire about Ann Joslin Williams is the generosity of her affections, the richness of her landscapes, and the easy grace of her prose. The stories in The Woman in the Woods are like tiles that slowly fit together to create the portrait of a grief that flows down through the generations, obscured sometimes by love and by pleasure, but never completely forgotten. The book is richly populated with men and women, adults and children, and the souls of those both living and dead---all of whom, like Dante, seem to have come to themselves within a dark wood where the straight way has been lost.
--Kevin Brockmeier author of A Brief History of the Dead

These stories move with the inexorable pull of a river, carrying us through cycles of love and loss, grief and hope, with such clear-eyed honesty that we come to feel the characters’ emotions as our own. Williams is a brilliant observer of the natural world—not only of the patterns of weather and the changes of Northeast flora and fauna, but also of the forces that bring us together and pull us apart. The Woman in the Woods marks the debut of a wise and beautiful voice in American fiction, one that will stand as a powerful new presence in our literary landscape.
--Julie Orringer author of How To Breathe Underwater

Children and mating and rivers and rejoicing and farewells—The Woman in the Woods is made from the living, turning textures of family passions and despair, as years pass and they cherish and renew themselves, as families do. Ann Joslin Williams tells us an emotionally demanding and beautiful, if occasionally heartbreaking, story of the sort that gives an old fellow heart. I both suffered and loved it.
William Kittredge, author of Hole in the Sky and The Willow Field