Valparaiso, Round the Horn by Madeline ffitch
I cannot recall exactly what animal she was supposed to be dressed up as. Black makeup made a domino mask that makes me want to say raccoon. The eyes were emphasized, imploring. I do not remember either the exact nature of what those eyes were directing me to do. The gist of it was something like this animal was encaged, and I, sitting in the front row, was closest to the button that might release her, or give her food pellets, or something. The button was specifically labeled that it was not to be touched, but it was up to Madeline ffitch to engage my sense of empathy through eye contact that I should press the button, and the show would start in earnest thereafter.
This was at a performance of The Missoula Oblongata, in 2009. As part of the group, ffitch performed in plays that she co-wrote, and the collaborators constructed sets that were mobile enough to tour around the country and set up in DIY spaces. Pedals on the floor triggered light sources, throwing attention to various parts of the stage to accomplish the effect of scene changes at a breakneck pace to match the screwball approach of the dialogue. Six years and, I'm assuming, a formal higher education later, ffitch has a short story collection to her name, Valparaiso, Round the Horn, and what seems most retained from the work she did then, over any thematic overlap, is a sense of physicality. The necessity to realize specific effects that could only come through the jury-rigging of material, and the pursuit of an audience through touring seems to have instilled in her a relationship to contact with the world foreign to those whose literary vision has been formed primarily in the headspace of an individual alone inside their room.
The stories here are less interested in getting to a gut-punch of a last line than presenting in their telling the feeling of adventure itself, the yearning that drives one to it, and the forging of an iron will that results in the end. Her desire, I think, is to make the myth she wants to see in America, exemplary of a liberal individualism, where all are free to make their way and find a corner in the world's crags, without harm to others. Here guns are fired, often, but never at another human being. In "Fort Clatsop," a janitor finds a home for himself and his daughter in the boiler room, and tries to instill in her that they are part of a lineage that includes Johnny Appleseed. The notion of family reoccurs throughout these stories, viewed as something to fight for, either to protect the one that exists, or to attain the one wished for. In those co-written plays, the most common thread was a protagonist's desire to be recognized for what they were good at, but in the intervening years, ffitch has become a mother, and the anxieties of a daughter are gone. It seems important to her now to explain what it is that family means, and to instill in her audience some sense of resistance. She needs people who will ignore the written rules that tell them not to do something when the eyes they're looking into insist that they should.
The Google search I did upon learning ffitch had a book coming out lead me to multiple stories of her arrest for anti-fracking activism, on a charge of "inducing panic." The belief in the value of direct action aligns with her stories' sense of rectitude, and demonstrates their code of honor. The desire to protect the environment necessitates the refusal to take a short-term bribe, in favor of a better world for herself and any possible descendants. It's important not to compromise, to understand the distinctions that create the world for what they are in the face of those who'd blur them, and her characters share that sense. The narrator of "A Sow On The Lam" is a scientist tracking turtles that make their home in runoff, who writes: "Compare a pig farm to an industrial hog farm. It's like composing a poem for someone, then handing it to them along with the pamphlet that came in the box with the microwave. You could say they're both writing."
Placing the environment in a position of paramount importance then diminishes the place of human endeavor relative to the rest of the world. She seeks equanimity with animals. Another story's narrator writes, "If I pushed far enough through salal, blackberry, and ivy, through shingled coats of invasive species, if I walked and walked until the constant water from the undergrowth had soaked my thin clothing, I could turn around and look back and see the world as it truly was -- pressing, dripping, lattices of green, with no trace of where I'd come from." This is the way the world is, the way that ffitch envisions it, and the way her code of honor would have it be, but there are plenty of environmentally destructive forces who would leave more than a trace of human will upon all that green.
The way ffitch's protagonists insist upon their honor and morality reminds me of Charles Willeford's Cockfighter, albeit with some rough edges sanded away. That book takes the idea of a moral code, held only in a private bargain with oneself, and considers it specifically as a somewhat self-destructive, but inextricable, part of manhood. I have seen ffitch perform the roles of male and female and animal all, and she has lent each figure the same livewire physicality, and outside of any outward signal, they declare themselves only according to the bent of her narratives. Here she makes myths for both the people of the future and her own generation, and if she sees herself as no nobler than an animal, there is no reason she should distinguish between genders as she establishes her pantheon of role models. If the emphasis on family slots her outlook as heteronormative, it still seems like the world she wants is friendly to queers, who it can be assumed she sees as peers. Her language occasionally takes on the mildly parodic diction of certain Kids in the Hall sketches, when a character's self-importance combined with a performer's declarative approach to feel both true and memorably contrived. Her sense of feminist forebears manifests in that whenever she details an action, like a character slaughtering an animal, it feels like something that might have precedent in Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Still, there is always a balance being walked, the way one does among neighbors one wishes only to coexist beside, between allowing people to have their mysteries and projecting onto them enough that there can be respect:
No one knows what it's like for two boys to be best friends. We will always wonder what they talk about on long journeys when it's just the two of them, but we will never know because no one knows. It's a secret. We have to go by pieces. We know, for example, that it's nice to have a pal in your corner, and sometimes you don't even have to talk about it. Sometimes, if you get in a fight, you can just go off into the woods together and box it out. You don't have to talk about it, you just box it out, back in the thin ash woods, back by the raccoon hide-out, where the raccoons wash their stolen food in pools of water, those bandits, those aristocrats.
Anyone who has ever dumpster dived must feel some kinship with the raccoon, I feel, the same as certain mothers see themselves in any animal who would rip to shreds those who'd come between them and their kids. That image comes from another of the stories here, "The Stars and Stripes Forever," one that ends bloodier than those that surround it. In animals, we see as noble what might be negative traits in humans, and as ffitch makes her myths in defense of all that we could lose, she sees in these endangered creatures all the virtue humans perhaps too easily forsake for civilization's short-term comforts. In her stories there are likewise present joys of storytelling the way we experienced it as children, that perhaps have been unlearned through lives spent receiving lessons learned by writers in their workshops.
Valparaiso, Round the Horn by Madeline ffitch
Publishing Genius Press