In the title story of Cary Holladay’s new collection, Brides in the Sky, a young Virginia woman named Kate sets out for Oregon territory with her sister and their husbands. It is the mid-nineteenth century, and their small party of wagons seems charmed. Despite encountering the specters of previous settlers’ illnesses, violent skirmishes, and deaths, their own time on the trail has been marked by adventure and flirtation. When the landscape suddenly turns ominous, Kate suspects their luck may be shifting: “When had the glory seeped out of the days? Beneath the endless sky, Kate felt like a mouse hunted by hawks.”
Reversals of fate like Kate’s lie at the heart of Holladay’s masterful fiction. A professor of creative writing at the University of Memphis, Holladay has a stellar track record—readers could look no further than a pair of collections, The Deer in the Mirror and Horse People, both published in 2013, for an introduction to her expert storytelling. Brides in the Sky contributes beautifully to this body of work, its stories brimming with vibrant life, nuanced characters, and plots fueled by surprising turns.
The rebellious women of Cary Holladay’s fiction struggle to take charge of their destinies in a world that never ceases to bring obstacles, whether threatening or tantalizing. These women make unexpected choices driven by fascinating motives. Often, prideful characters suffer humbling losses, leading them to rethink their positions. In “Comanche Queen,” for example, a farmwife named Katherine is charged with looking after her husband’s sister—a white woman kidnapped long before by Comanche raiders but later returned against her will, grief-stricken and determined to escape. After years of hardship and foolish choices leave Katherine sobered and regretful, she reassesses that troublesome sister-in-law.
Holladay sometimes employs various points of view within a single story, generating empathy and overcoming stereotype through the accumulation of perspectives. “Hay Season” features a home health aide overwhelmed by caregiving’s pressures, the aide’s grandson (an inept high-school teacher), and the grandson’s fiancée—all of whom are hiding from the responsibilities of their lives. Entangled with the others, each character’s struggle takes on greater depth. Same goes for “Fairy Tale,” in which two neighboring women clash when they become involved in the investigation of a local girl’s disappearance.
Brides in the Sky also delivers when it comes to sheer entertainment. “Interview with Etta Place, Sweetheart of the Sundance Kid” boasts a narrator no less ornery and funny than Mattie Ross from Charles Portis’s classic, True Grit. “Shades” brings a kidnapped child into a sorority rush party, a tone of mythic haze making the scenes equal parts dangerous and enchanting.
The collection’s finest work is a novella called “A Thousand Stings.” Its irresistible protagonist, Shirley, is a nine-year-old girl in 1967 Virginia. Forever trying to arrange things according to her liking, Shirley remains baffled by other people’s reactions, as when a bloody collision with her schoolyard crush during Red Rover appears not to affect him much at all: “All her life, it will amaze her that not everybody remembers the same details she does, that not all intimacy leaves a mark.”
Already Shirley feels the uneasy cost of being an observer: “Time and again, she’ll hurt the ones she loves, thrust their frailties in their faces, and she’ll be as she is now, dry-throated and full of remorse.” The novella culminates in stressful preparations for her older sister’s birthday party as the family navigates a threshold: adolescence has entered their household, shifting every loyalty and imbuing everyday details with momentous importance.
Such thresholds recur throughout Brides in the Sky as Holladay’s characters move through their lives, determined to chart their courses. Despite the strength of their desires and plans, life startles them into sudden change, and into moments of sparkling wonder.
Emily Choate holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction has been published in Shenandoah, The Florida Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Double Dealer, and her nonfiction has appeared in Yemassee, Late Night Library, and elsewhere. She lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.