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for people who care about the West

A puzzle of memory and vision

 

Boneland: Linked Stories
Nance Van Winckel
196 pages, softcover: $16.95.
University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.

Loss -- real and potential -- casts a shadow over the lives of the characters in Washington writer Nance Van Winckel's poignant, deeply interconnected short stories. At the center of the collection is Lynette, who seems as trouble-prone as she is resilient. In the opening story, we meet her at age 40, reflecting on the nature of memory while attempting to recover from a laser eye surgery that has left her vision blurry and her thoughts jumbled. "Memory grows sharper, brighter. That's what the sightless are told by the sighted," she thinks, establishing the twin themes -- memory and vision -- that recur throughout Boneland.

In another piece, a teenaged Lynette prepares for a different surgery -- this one for her "humped, crooked old woman's" scoliotic back. She fears the operation will turn her to "worm food" and is haunted by thoughts of her friend Nickki, who died recently when her family's car was struck by a logging truck. "Blindsided" is the word Lynette recalls people using to describe the accident, and it's an apt term considering the stress laid on sight throughout these metaphor-rich and memorable stories.

Although Lynette and her family encounter what seems to be more than their fair share of obstacles over time, they refuse to be overcome. At age 8, cousin Jessie is left an orphan when her mother and sister are engulfed by a wave while spreading Jessie's father's ashes in the ocean. Another cousin, dropped when he was a baby, struggles to pass as one of what he calls "the normals." An uncle whose daughter has gone missing tries to find solace by searching for fossils. An older Lynette is wracked by guilt and grief over her husband's death. She wonders: Was it suicide?

The stories, set primarily in Spokane, Wash., and Montana, move backward and forward across time. Tracing the many connections -- actual and symbolic -- that wend their way throughout the collection gives the book a puzzle-like quality that lends itself to re-reading. In Boneland, Van Winckel has created a world where the past remains present and memory shapes the way we come to terms with loss.