In This Light: New and Selected Stories
Melanie Rae Thon
256 pages, softcover: $15.
Graywolf Press, 2011.


Utah author Melanie Rae Thon maintains a seat beside fellow literary powerhouses Annie Proulx and Maile Meloy as she paints a portrait of a West that is at once desolate and tender. Written in fierce and unflinching prose, the stories in her third collection are about the dispossessed, the wild and searching. Every story is one that "could turn the hard of heart into believers, or the most trusting souls into cynics." In This Light will make you feel achingly old and cold to the bone as you link arms with the narrators, limping toward some sense of peace.

Thon slips into the skins of her flawed, long-suffering characters with astonishing ease and authenticity. Her characters are hungry, and for more than just food. Two runaway kids break into a house one night and gorge themselves. One says, "You don't know how it hurt us to eat this way, our shriveled stomachs stretching; you don't know why we couldn't stop." Her people are loners, addicts, outcasts, misfits stuck in too-small towns and reservations. They lose fingers to frostbite and steal coats that are too thin. In one story, Thon describes a horde of runaway children who haunt the woods outside of Kalispell, Mont., as being glued together "from broken sleds and headless dolls and bits of fur and scraps of plastic. Their bones were splintered wood. Their hearts were chicken hearts. Their little hands were rubber."

Though this collection weighs heavy on the heart, it also provides a strange comfort. For anyone who has wrestled, as her characters do, with the questions "Why were you whole? Why were they shattered?" this book flickers like a small campfire in a black night. If these characters are abandoned, they are also saved -- reaching for redemption, however imperfect. Thon describes a ragged, scarred Chippewa man as "scorched like the earth itself, a face that revealed the suffering of a thousand homeless Indians"  and then writes, "Yours was a face to love: without love, there was no way to look at you."

She bears witness, she takes names, she makes the details shine, but when specifics fade, when blame disappears, the human condition remains. To a homeless junkie kid, to a Vietnam vet, to a Holocaust survivor, to an orphaned teenage mother, to the reader of this book, pain is pain, love is love. Even the driest heart can still recognize beauty.