Thursday, July 14, 2011

"The Bostons," by Carolyn Cooke

Not much current American fiction addresses social class differences; this perhaps stems from a reluctance, despite all evidence, to discuss the existence of social class differences in the United States. Carolyn Cooke’s short story collection, “The Bostons” (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), is an exception; these stories, mostly set in Boston and Maine, portray characters and settings from a wide variety of social classes. The stories set in Boston tend to feature middle- or upper middle-class characters, albeit sometimes genteelly poorer than they were in the past; the stories set in Maine focus on the working and nonworking poor. (These latter stories remind me a bit of Carolyn Chute’s 1986 book, “The Beans of Egypt, Maine.”) Both worlds are described by Cooke with a sort of clinical precision. She seems less interested in judging or in editorializing than in simple description. (Of course nothing a good author writes is truly ”simple.”). The result is that we as readers are given windows into several worlds, worlds that may be unfamiliar to us. We are challenged to understand people along the whole range of economic and social status. This is, after all, one of the roles of literature. These stories are well written, and the fact that characters from one story occasionally show up briefly in other stories starts to make a web of connections across borders – not only the borders of the stories’ beginnings and endings, but the borders of the characters’ geographic, chronological, and social sites.

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