Ghosts of Wyoming: A haunted past and present

 

Ghosts of Wyoming
Alyson Hagy
170 pages, softcover: $15.
Graywolf Press, 2010.

Reading Alyson Hagy's new collection of short stories, Ghosts of Wyoming, is a bit like poring over a stranger's photo album, some pictures grayed and dusty, the images gone faint, others recent and still vivid. Each deft vignette contains its own bounded narrative, but taken together, Ghosts tells a story larger than the sum of its parts.

Whether she's describing "Brief Lives of the Trainmen" during the 19th century, or the very modern clash between ranchers, conservationists and tourists in "The Little Saint of Hoodoo Mountain," Hagy suggests that these stories unfold on a continuum: Hundred-year-old happenings linger in the air like dirt-road dust. The past is more potent -- and more reliable -- than what is to come, as a character sums up in "Oil and Gas": "I'd like to see (a road into the future) with my own eyes, make sure it's not another heartaching, backbreaking mirage. A real future. Goddamn."

Refreshingly, Hagy doesn't stick solely to the tried-and-true characters that populate so many Wyoming stories. Mixed in with the ranchers and wranglers and rodeo-riders are newspaper reporters, troubled teenagers, welders, doctoral students at the University in Laramie, emergency room workers and EPA agents. While the plotlines and protagonists vary widely, each story resonates with themes of loss, resignation, hope and hardscrabble independence.

Hagy also plays with the many possible manifestations of hauntedness. The ghosts of the title assume varied forms, from the talking, floating figment in "Superstitions of the Indians" (the weakest of the eight stories), to lingering legends, to the devil-plagued mule driver in "The Sin Eaters," the novella that closes out the book. At times, Hagy's subtext is perhaps a bit too subtle. Still, the faintness of the strands that run through the narrative is a kind of haunting itself; the tenuous filaments nicely reflect the web that keeps Wyoming and its people inextricably bound to one another, to the land, and to the ever-present past.

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