News Short Story Up at Fictive Dream

I’m happy to have another story up at Fictive Dream, a great online journal out of the UK. This piece began as a lighthearted exploration of what might happen if a writer (as opposed to an athlete or celebrity) visited a hospital to cheer up patients. You can find out where the story ends by taking a look here: https://fictivedream.com/2020/11/15/feel-better/

An “Unfinished” Flash

My latest flash fiction (“An Unfinished Prayer”) was published the other day in Heart of Flesh, an online literary journal edited by Veronica McDonald. In this story, the main character tries to find closure after the death of her difficult father. You can read it by clicking on the link below.

https://heartoffleshlit.com/issue-four/michael-cocchiarale/

It Can Happen Here: A Review of The Magpie’s Return

The Magpie’s Return, Curtis Smith’s vigorously-paced fifth novel, is timely to say the least, exploring what could easily happen to a politically divided nation when confronted with the additional burden of unprecedented catastrophe. By design, the story opens in a relatively innocuous fashion, with protagonist Kayla telling the reader about her trials and tribulations as an eighth-grade math prodigy. The daughter of academics—her father is a botanist, her mother a poet—she faces typical struggles, including, mostly notably, a bully in her school.

Kayla’s conflict with and eventual vanquishing of this bully might be the climax in a pedestrian coming-of-age novel. However, Smith quickly sets aside this overused plot point to explore what happens to a young person who must suddenly and shockingly make her way in a radically transformed world. Smith lays the foundation for his much more ambitious project by weaving into the early pages of the novel exposition about a politically divided nation deep in the throes of a contentious battle for the White House. Arthur McNally, candidate for the Reform Party, spreads his hateful message through weekly vodcasts, which are “a cocktail of nationalistic Christianity, anti-intellectualism, and thinly-veiled racism” (12). The candidate energizes his base with frequent rallies, one of which Smith describes as a “hoarse tirade,” in which

his dust and gravel buzzwords [are] lifted by his followers: One America. Holy America. McNally mentions his opponent, the name spat from his tongue. The crowd cries in return—curses and threats and the promise to take to the streets should their man lose….McNally rails. The media. The elites. The multiculturalists. All traitors against a once-great nation. (27)

Kayla and her family are understandably shaken when this Trumpian demagogue wins the election. However, their daily life continues more or less normally until—out of nowhere—a New Year’s Day nuclear war devastates half of the world, forcing the nation into a month-long quarantine that readers will no doubt find all too familiar. Smith does an excellent job of presenting the tedious day-to-day life during what he calls the Great Shut-In. The monotony is broken up on occasion when Kayla, laden with protective attire, visits her friend Fran. While the two enjoy each other’s company, they are naturally filled with considerable anxiety about the future. Kayla says, “Is it weird I’m more afraid of when this all ends?” (46). It is a question that many of us may be asking today.

The Magpie’s Return is published by Running Wild Press: https://runningwildpress.com/

The quarantine eventually ends, but political tensions between the McNallyites and The Movement, a rebel group comprised of artists and intellectuals, escalate into a full-blown civil war. Soon, unspeakable tragedy strikes Kayla’s home. Orphaned, forced on the run, Kayla is eventually captured by police and placed in a center populated with other girls whose families have been victimized by the internecine conflict. While ostensibly a safe haven, the girl’s home is little more than a microcosm of the world outside, with residents divided according to the political orientation of their parents. When Kayla questions this arrangement, Nurse Amy, one of the few benign, compassionate presences in this prison-like world, explains:

It’s just how things are…. It depends where you came from. Your circumstances. The reds have situations like yours. Their parents with The Movement….The whites come from families where the parents were lost on the other side of things. They were police or military or with the government” (177).

In many ways, Kayla’s situation seems familiar. She’s a new girl in a new school. She once against has to confront a bully—in this case, a pretty and superficially pure “white” named Donna. But as the civil war rages outside the doors to the facility, a violent war between white and red girls flares as well. Although Kayla forges a kind of surrogate family with her roommates (Heather, Linda, Chris, and the hard-as-nails Betty), her main goal is to escape and to find her mother, whom she believes may still be alive.

Early in the novel, her father admonishes Kayla to have a plan, advice she continues to remember as the story plunges on. But in the face of an unspeakable personal tragedy, in the face of civil war, how is a fifteen-year-old supposed to come up with a workable plan? During the quarantine, Kayla confronts her parents about their “complicity in their generation’s sins” (37). As we read further, this charge continues to haunt the reader. What kind of world have we created for our children? Smith seems to ask through the startling scenes and plot turns throughout the book. What can we naturally expect of them if circumstances make good plans nearly impossible?

Although knowing what happens to Kayla is easy—a matter of turning the pages of this engrossing book—knowing what will happen in our own violent and divided world remains a mystery. While contemplating the future of the country during quarantine, Kayla’s father says, “We can follow the same path—or we can find a new one” (56). It’s clear that this powerful, harrowing novel is showing us the road we need to avoid.