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Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade

Night At the Fiestas: Stories - Kirstin Valdez Quade

This is an intense literary short story collection, consisting of 10 stories mostly set in New Mexico, many but not all featuring Hispanic characters. The author does an excellent job with character, each of the protagonists seeming as real as a character in a good novel, drawn with specific traits that bring them to life as individuals. And the scene-setting is great too; the stories are immersive, with well-chosen details that bring them to life in the mind’s eye without interfering with the pace of the plot. And they are compelling, each one different.

The stories are on the darker side, often featuring broken families, domestic violence (typically off-screen), or just protagonists who feel alone in the world. My two global complaints are that the endings are often a little bit weak – Valdez Quade seems to struggle most with the last paragraph or two of a story – and that a few stories prominently feature secondary characters whose behavior doesn’t quite make sense. Short stories are made for ambiguity, and there’s plenty of that here – I wish I’d read it with someone else, to be able to discuss it, which is a sign of a good short story – but it needs to be calculated precisely.

But now for the stories (and I’d be interested to hear others’ interpretations):

“Nemecia”: The first story starts out strong, featuring a young girl growing up in the early 20th century looking up to her mysterious older cousin. It peters out toward the end, though.

“Mojave Rats”: This is a perfectly fine story about a blended family living (temporarily; the mother depends on it) in an RV park in the Mojave Desert. It spends a little too much time in the protagonist’s head though, and ends on a realization rather than an event; I can see why few reviewers mention it.

“The Five Wounds”: Seems to be the overall favorite of the collection, and it’s very strong: this story of a deadbeat father’s attempt at redemption through a violent religious ritual (one apparently actually carried out by the Penitentes in New Mexico) features a big, dramatic, culturally-specific set piece, and is well-crafted and intense.

“Night at the Fiestas”: On the one hand, I really enjoyed this story of a teenage girl who wants her life to be a drama, and encounters a moral dilemma on her way to the Fiestas de Santa Fe; it’s also an intense and well-crafted story. But the actions of the man on the bus didn’t make a lot of sense to me. How could he just forget the large amount of cash he was carrying, and why didn’t he try harder to retrieve it?

“The Guesthouse”: The dynamics of what feels like an archetypical broken middle-America family seem entirely believable here, but this story’s set piece – involving a boa constrictor – was a little over-the-top for me, and the story ends abruptly on an act of violence without letting us see the consequences.

“Family Reunion”: This is a great story about an 11-year-old who feels like an extra wheel in her blended family and an outcast as a non-Mormon in Salt Lake City. The friend’s mother’s behavior didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but it’s an emotionally intense story that left me disturbed by just how alone this kid is.

“Jubilee”: This one is also great: a college student from a poor background intends to shame her father’s landowner boss with her reverse snobbery at a fancy party, but mostly reveals her own clumsiness and insecurities.

“Ordinary Sins”: The setting of this story is interesting, featuring the dynamics of a Catholic parish where the long-term, kindhearted but timid local priest is perhaps to be supplanted by a stern young Nigerian newcomer. But it spends a little too much time in the head of its protagonist, a pregnant young parish employee, as she overthinks a situation she encounters, and the end felt a little obligatory.

“Canute Commands the Tides”: This is an accomplished but disturbing story, about a retiree who, feeling a lack of purpose and connection in her life, befriends the woman she’s hired to help unpack and clean up her new house, only to encounter violence from the cleaning lady’s son. This story made me uncomfortable in part because of the violence (which is starker here than in any other story), and in part because several readers seem to have taken it as a parable about naïve white do-gooders. Certainly reaching out to others can result in being hurt yourself, but I think cautioning people against kindness and generosity is a pretty anti-social message; I also think the story isn’t actually that simplistic, that Margaret is more lonely than meddling and just has bad luck in the family she encounters.

“The Manzanos”: Like most readers, I didn’t think much of the final story. Its lack of plot is a weakness, but its larger problem is being told in the first person, present tense from the point-of-view of an 11-year-old with poor academic skills . . . whose “voice” nevertheless is that of a 30-something well-educated writer in both form and content. It’s jarring and not believable in the least. Presumably this was one of the author’s early stories.

Overall though, this collection really engaged me; it features well-developed protagonists and settings and engaging plots, and gave me a lot to think about. I look forward to seeing what this author does next; she is relatively young but well on her way to being a fantastic writer.