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Themes and Threads in Jean Harfenist's "A Brief History of the Flood"
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"A Brief History of the Flood" (Courtesy of Vintage Books)

"A Brief History of the Flood" is a series of 11 linked short stories that recount the life and times of Lillian Anderson, from 1959 to 1970, when she was eight to eighteen years old and living in Acorn Lake, Minnesota, with her dysfunctional family on a piece of property constantly threatened by literal and proverbial rising tides.

While there have been many classic works of linked short stories, such as Ellen Gilchrist's "Rhoda: A life in Stories," and Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" (both previous Talking Volumes authors) the idea of using linked short stories to create a novel-length work is not an altogether common craft choice. This is partly because it's no small task to create separate stories that work together and don't cause unnecessary interruption for the reader. Also, short stories have higher demands for space and weight. Each story is meant to be it's own complete pearl, enjoyed on it's own or linked up with the others.

This "pearls-on-a-string" technique is often an asset when working with a particularly well fleshed-out character, as is the case in this book. It gives the reader time to get to know the protagonist from multiple angles and against changing backdrops. Also, the "broken narrative" mirrors the way memories work, especially childhood memories, in non-linear time with overlapping storylines. Harfenist's choice to begin her novel in media res or, in the middle of things, is also apt since the entire work resembles a kinetic collage of memories and images that work together like a patchwork quilt to assemble the picture of a whole.

The kinetic tone in the book is partially due to the fact that while many have called the writing spare, sensory triggers are prevalent. Crunching gravel, chittering squirrels and constant lake breezes are all anchoring sensory cues that place the reader in a first-hand account of the events that unfold throughout the stories. Without these sensory triggers, we might feel outside the dramas that occur, but because the author has taken the time to describe the physicality of the wedding cake boats and industrial salad bars, we too, are not just in front row seats, but inside the story, walking alongside the characters.

With the short story alone, it's sometimes difficult to develop over-arching themes and metaphors because there simply isn't time. In the novel or linked short story the author has more space to build multiple levels within the structure. Harfenist does this by using the classic metaphor of water or flood. Joseph Campbell, in his epic series, "The Power of Myth," cites water as metaphor for the unconscious. The hero often has to journey into or through water to conquer a larger power. Call it the: "Jonah in the belly of the whale" scenario. The ancient Maori Tidal Model metaphor notes the dualistic qualities of water. It is chaotic and calm, peaceful and vengeful. Water gives life, and water takes life away.

With unique structure, spare writing, deep metaphor and an authentic voice, Jean Harfenist illuminates the duality of Lillian's life with the ironies and hardships around her and the many ways in which she as a character, and we as readers, are better off for examining the beauty of the broken world around us.

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