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Michigan Bookmark: "Swarm Theory" is a gripping work of Midwest Gothic



Michigan Bookmark is a series that features Michigan authors reviewing Michigan books.

It would be expected that tales of cheating, addiction, violence, deception and comeuppance would take place in a gotham like Detroit. But Michigan-born author Christine Rice understands that nowhere is karma more swift and secrets more vulnerable than in the tight hive of a small town.

"Swarm Theory" is a book of linked short stories that take place in the fictional, rural town of New Canaan, somewhere between Flint and Detroit. If the Biblical name of the town isn’t a sign of the retribution to come, the foreboding “eerie green stillness” of the Midwestern sky certainly is.

The opening salvo, “Atmospheric Disturbances,” follows Astrid Miracal, a teenager whose Lebanese mother and philandering father fill the household with the electric tension of a looming tornado. As Astrid’s parents are caught in a destructive cyclone of infidelity, Astrid falls into a lifetime of chasing storms. 

The stories follow Astrid and her friends, a band of luckless misfits, who grow up laboring beneath their parents’ poor decisions. As the characters develop, so do the links between their lives. One begins to understand how actions beget reactions, and how one life can turn upon the choices of others.

... a cautionary tale about "the choices people made and the staggering blows unleashed in their wake."

In the vein of Flannery O’Connor, Rice exposes the darkest aspects of human nature as the children of New Canaan raise themselves and learn hard lessons.  More than once, I wanted to holler, “Where are their mothers?”

The answer is that they are largely absent:  Mothers pack their bags and disappear. They follow their drug habits. They discover new love. They commit suicide. They become ghosts who haunt their children into adulthood. As Astrid herself realizes, “This is reality: Hovering in space, unanchored, with no one and nothing to pull us back down.”

But all is not lost for the resilient inhabitants of New Caanan, whose lives intertwine in unexpected ways. It’s a place where faith shines only through the defrocked, where a girl finds courage behind the wheel of a Monte Carlo, where a war veteran’s soul mate is an abused dog, and where a disinherited lovechild has the power to exact justice.

What becomes of the hive when the queen no longer reigns? Individuals follow their own instincts and the collective thrives or suffers accordingly.

In "Swarm Theory," New Canaan’s children reap the sins of their fathers and the neglect of their mothers. It’s a gripping work of Midwest Gothic that is a cautionary tale about “the choices people made and the staggering blows unleashed in their wake.” 

Desiree Cooper is a former attorney, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and Detroit community activist. Her latest book is called "Know the Mother."

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