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Book review: Bootstrapping, hope at the center of new collection of short stories

Baobab Press, 2019

Dorene O’Brien brings exquisite art and unsentimental heart to the characters in her new short story collection, What It Might Feel Like to Hope, published by Baobab Press.

The eleven stories in this compelling collection spar with the courage and downright obstinacy of independent-minded people who refuse to let hardships or just plain bad luck whittle away their idealism. The stories take place in Detroit and small towns across the upper Midwest, and O’Brien’s cast is as varied and determined as her gritty settings. An herbalist dispenses tough love about the dangers of Cheetos along with her healing dandelion tea. A tarot card reader schemes to save Detroit from blight and casinos. An Alzheimer’s diagnosis leads a research scientist to find new meaning in the crystals he can no longer study. Story by story, line by line, O’Brien reveals that forging our own destinies when circumstances elude our control is the collection’s real meaning of hope.    

Many of O’Brien’s stories portray hope not as the brass ring up for grabs, but as an intentional practice for survival. In “Falling Forward”, a grieving woman finds new purpose by repeatedly bailing her drunken, ne’er-do-well neighbor from jail. When Faith convinces Ed to release his pet lizard from captivity, O’Brien’s deft descriptions make us feel that Faith and Ed’s leap into their new futures isn’t so much redemption, but a mandate to embrace the freedom to feel pain. In “Harm None”, a woman whose husband is MIA in Vietnam pledges to live with her mother-in-law, that tough love herbalist, until her husband comes home. The women survive both financial struggles and a loss of faith by building a successful herbal tea business that practices another of the collection’s themes that “energy sent to sick people did not replace their responsibility for their own well-being but simply kicked their own healing into gear.”

O’Brien also writes eloquently of how our bodies play turncoat in heartbreaking ways. In the collection’s title story, a repressed mortician who is “keenly aware of how a body can turn on a person without notice” learns that he must pierce his professional detachment in order to feel the hope raw grief can bring. And in the story “Honesty Above All Else,” Detroit is the body and the corruption that leads to blight is the betrayal.

Woven into her collection’s generous tapestry of minds, bodies, and places, O’Brien’s characters share one common past; they have all built their earlier lives on faith. Since hope once gave them the moxy to get where they are in life, the search to feel hope again gives these stories a practical and spiritual heft beyond the typical redemption narrative. In What It Might Feel Like to Hope, faith is not an ephemeral force, but the bootstrap that gets the job done. O’Brien’s insightful, beautiful writing and exquisite attention to craft do the same.

Laura Thomas heads the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan's Residential College. She is the author of the short story collection "States of Motion," published by Wayne State University Press.