How does a town come to be? In the prologue to Strafford resident Catherine Tudish's debut collection of short stories, it happens by accident. One day in 1765, fur trapper Lucius Tenney dozes off as his raft drifts down the Monongahela River in southwestern Pennsylvania. Caught in an eddy, he wakes to find himself on a sandbar, gazing at a "long, wide expanse" of virgin landscape. He promptly decides to make it his homestead.
Three hundred years later, the fictional town of Tenney's Landing has seen prosperity and decline -- booming with the riverboats, then watching the new interstate highways steal its population, like other small towns across America. The "joke" of its name is a secret that died with Tenney, who never meant to land there at all. Accident has turned into manifest destiny.
Which has more power in human lives: chance or choice? It's a question that surfaces periodically in Tudish's eight stories, each of which focuses on a significant moment in the life of a member or members of this community. The stories are set at different points in the second half of the 20th century, arranged with no particular regard for chronology; some feature flashbacks to earlier moments in the town's history.
Although they stand alone -- as some of the stories have in local literary journals -- they are linked by setting and cast of characters, with the protagonist of one story sometimes turning up as a minor character or footnote in another. By the end of the book, you may feel as if you've spent several hours chatting with the postmistress of a small town -- the type of person who knows who's coming, who's going, who's sleeping with whom, who let a good thing get away, and whose family mortally offended another's half a century ago.
More importantly, though, you'll learn what the town gossip can't tell you: how it felt. Tudish focuses on the inner lives of characters who seldom do anything more dramatic than break their daily routines: As literary towns go, Tenney's Landing is closer to Winesburg, Ohio, than Peyton Place. But when these people do change their lifelong patterns, it matters. In "Pigeon," a woman has a sudden hunch that there's more to her husband's quiet retirement than he's letting on. When she tails him to the house of his high school crush, her former rival, she discovers a side of him she's never seen, and we realize that this enduring marriage is built on a surprisingly fragile foundation. In "Killer," an elderly woman in a nursing home tries in vain to remind people of a long-ago act of violence that the town seems to have forgotten.
Unlike some nostalgic small-town portraits, Tudish's reflects the realities of life in the age of mobility. Not all the stories take place in Tenney's Landing, and many of their characters are emigrants from or immigrants to the town, outsiders with no firm roots. In "Where the Devil Lost His Blanket," town insider Elizabeth Tenney travels to Colombia to bury a neighbor she scarcely knows -- an outsider -- and finds herself unexpectedly drawn to the foreign landscape and the dead woman's brother. In "Jordan's Stand," a young widow from out West befriends an elderly farmer and becomes the heir he lost when his children fled to better lives elsewhere. In "The Dowry," set in South Dakota, a no-nonsense sheep rancher explains to her young cousin why she "just wanted to get up and get the hell away" from Tenney's Landing more than 25 years earlier. And in the final, novella-length story, that same cousin, older and wiser, closes the circle by leaving her yuppie marriage in Chicago and returning to the town of her forebears.
Tudish's writing evokes inevitable comparisons to that of acclaimed Canadian author Alice Munro. Besides their rural settings, both authors proceed at a leisurely pace, meticulously detailing lives of backbreaking chores and small pleasures. Both jump back and forth in time to show how a tiny circumstance can derail a life or put it on track, and both are fascinated with the vagaries of love, particularly as experienced by women. The heroine of Tudish's "The Springhouse" asks herself if love is simply lust and decides, "It was also a longing for something that might carry you into the future and not leave you stranded."
Tudish doesn't fully share Munro's ability to draw a vivid, satisfying romanticism from the everyday. Some of the parallels in her stories are strained, and the protagonist's dilemma in the final novella is made too easy. But Tudish's stories explore a wider range of character types than Munro's. She traces the fault lines of class and status difference in Tenney's Landing with aplomb, refusing to idealize her setting.
Rural Vermonters may recognize aspects of their own towns in Tenney's Landing -- the self-important notary public whose "clients came to consult her about toothache, corn weevils, infidelity"; the conflicts between farmers who want their road paved and weekenders who "wanted to keep the dirt road, 'in order to preserve its rural character.'"
Do you choose your town, or does it choose you? Lucius Tenney's story suggests that even the most esteemed forefathers relied on a bit of luck. The other stories remind us that how you got where you are is less important than whether you can make it a home.