'Children' seamlessly explores the emotional ties that bind

April 03, 1994|By Diane Scharper

Frederick Busch wrote "Ralph the Duck" for his son. At first, it was a bedtime story. Then it became a story about a man's attempts to keep a suicidal college girl alive. In a sense it's a love story, created from the complex feeling parents have when they see their grown children and remember holding what was once so little. This story, Mr. Busch said, balances loss and gain; doing so, it talks both tough and soft.

"Ralph the Duck," included in "The Best American Short Stories of 1989," is one of 23 stories in "The Children in the Woods," Mr. Busch's latest book. Only five stories in this collection are new, most of them having been published in previous collections. Several won prestigious awards, and Mr. Busch received the 1991 PEN/Malamud Award for distinguished short fiction.

Critics praise his ability to see into the complex emotions of his characters. Writing a blend of poetry and prose (some of his paragraphs read like prose poems), Mr. Busch looks at connections between people: "She was crying. I knew she would be," one character says. "I could hear the soft sound of her lashes."

Most of the people in these stories have been disconnected from each other and, because of this, from themselves. The action of the story tells how the characters reconnect or attempt to reconnect. In doing so, they find some hidden part of themselves and learn the ironies of life.

A widower is "led by happiness" to think of his dead wife. A son burns the bread that his mother had prepared before her untimely death, as he tries to evoke her memory. One of the characters comments in a letter, "I heard things as you might see them from the corner of your eye."

The stories are built on contradictions. Reading them is like experiencing lightning during a winter snow storm. They discuss adult themes, yet, like "Ralph the Duck," they're heavy with allusions to children's stories, especially "Hansel and Gretel." Sometimes those allusions take on horrifying repercussions, such as in "Berceuse," in which the protagonist, depressed over a miscarriage, is sharply reprimanded:

"What about death, Kim? What about the meaning of the six million dead? The smell of the camps. The chimneys . . . What would the townspeople have pretended to think the SS were baking in their ovens? Fairy tales, they were baking. Hansel and Gretel, they were baking. . . . First, Hansel, then Gretel, then little Hansel and Gretel babies, then wicked stepmothers, then softheaded fathers, then Hansel and Gretel again."

The stories focus on families who have separated but who are still bound to each other. In several cases, they are bound by a letter found after death; these letters suggest the power of the written word, a theme running through Mr. Busch's work. One story, "Folk Tales," uses a letter to bind several generations of the same family, with the letter becoming the subject of a family story. Another uses a letter to tie together several members of a step-family -- the divorced wife to the present wife to the son of the present wife.

The letter not only brings people together, but also becomes a way to delve into the personality of the one to whom it was addressed. In almost all these stories the question occurs: "Who was he?" A parent has died; the children are looking through personal effects to learn something about the inner life of the deceased: "Who was he when he wasn't being who he felt like he had to be for me?" they ask. The story, through this author's deft telling, provides a satisfying answer. Mr. Busch, having said that art is produced by a seamless fusion of inner and outer worlds, fuses seamlessly.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poems.

Title: "The Children in the Woods"

Author: Frederick Busch

Publisher: Ticknor & Fields

Length, price: 338 pages, $21.95

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