Mt. Abe grad wins prize for her first book
NEW HAVEN — One of the most impressive things about Cassie Fancher’s debut story collection, “Street of Widows,” aside from the fact that much of the material was written when she was a teenager, is the way the author distills complex situations into something like pure moments.
Take, for instance, the heartbreak and denial captured in the opening sentence of “Socks.”
“On Thursday night after Leo crashed his motorcycle into the side of a semi, Jenny washed his socks in the sink and tried to think about his death like he’d moved to another country that she might someday visit.”
Or the family dynamic conveyed with humor and a touch of absurdity in the collection’s final story, “For Ava.”
“I was the middle child of three sisters, or so I thought until, parked outside the bowling alley on a playdate with two of my closest friends, my mother revealed that because she had frozen her eggs, I was actually, technically speaking, the oldest. My egg had been frozen the longest.”
When the narrator’s friend May Ellen asks what that means, “my mother responded with an answer so detailed, so eloquent, that I was never allowed to play with May Ellen again.”
These precise, compact moments do a lot of heavy lifting in Fancher’s stories, conveying emotional and other information her characters are often unable or unwilling to directly communicate themselves, but the writer makes it look easy.
In part this is because Fancher — who attended North Branch School, graduated from Mount Abraham Union High School in 2013, and is now, at 25, pursuing an MFA at the University of Florida — took seriously from an early age the work of practicing and honing the basics, like sentence-writing.
“I used to write just a ton of first sentences,” Fancher told the Independent. “Then, when one seemed OK, I would try to write a story to go along with it. I was kind of new to writing stories, so it was a helpful way for me to generate ideas.”
Such work has also clearly taught her the power of restraint.
In the title story two women whose husbands developed silicosis working in the Barre granite quarries cross paths in a hospital. Louisa, whose husband has died of the disease, invites Elsie, whose husband still struggles with it, to come to her home.
“It’s important for us widows to stick together,” Louisa says. But “it isn’t until after Louisa has left, until after Elsie has resumed her bedside post, that she realizes Louisa’s mistake.”
Fancher then moves into another scene, leaving it up to the reader to imagine the texture and extent of whatever emotional impact this “mistake” has had on Elsie.
In this and many of her other stories Fancher was interested in the ways cracks can form in the exteriors of narrators and characters who are somewhat “closed off,” she said, as well as what kinds of things become visible through those cracks.
Sometimes those cracks betray a kind of fatalism or passivity, as in “A Temporary Bed,” which opens with “The night I met him, he told me I’d be his wife,” and ends with “his thumbs traced lines from the top of my spine to the base of my skull, and then his fingers were in my hair, nails scratching at my scalp, tugging at my roots harder, then harder still, until my neck bent back to meet his hands.”
Sometimes they betray a nearly paralyzing self-consciousness, as in “Carlo’s Fish,” when the narrator recalls that “we’d gone to the aquarium and seen fish with see-through skin. There had been a feeding demonstration where we could watch the fish digest their food, see it moving through their bodies in little black clumps. That was how my skin felt, too. Like everyone could see things moving around in my body, all my bitter clumps of phlegm and bile.”
Vermont settings and sensibilities also feature prominently in these stories: early-20th-century Barre, late-20th-century Bristol, a swimming hole very much like Bartlett Falls.
“I think Vermont’s a pretty big presence,” Fancher said. “Even in the stories that are set in other places I think I was imagining a narrator who had gone to those places from somewhere like Vermont.”
When asked if there was a particular quality or point of view Vermont-based narrators lend to her stories Fancher pointed to a kind of “bluntness.”
“And I think there’s an attention to natural settings that’s different from some other places, an attention to seasons and the ways that — and this is true of other places but it’s particularly true in Vermont — nature kind of encroaches on many situations even when you’re not planning on it.”
For her efforts, Fancher has won the Howard Frank Mosher First Book Prize and “Street of Widows” will be published next month by Green Writers Press of Brattleboro.
“‘Street of Widows’ took my breath away,” said the prize judge, Robin MacArthur. “Cassie Fancher is a young Alice Munro, rendering the streets and back roads of rural New England via fresh, haunting and electrifying images of longing and grief.”
The New Haven native has earned praise closer to home, too.
“Cassie Fancher’s graceful, lucid and absorbing stories present us with a new generation of Vermont talent that will resonate beyond our borders,” said Weybridge author Julia Alvarez. “Fancher’s women are resilient and fierce with the tenderness that comes from having known distress, love and loss.”
For more information about Fancher and her work, visit cassieflintfancher.com, and look for “Street of Widows” at the Vermont Book Shop and other fine booksellers next month.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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