“Kaleidoscope Jane & Other Stories”
Author: Carolyn Breckinridge
Publisher: Author House
Carolyn Ezell, writing as Carolyn Breckinridge, has published two mysteries set in Tuscaloosa, “Tuscaloosa Moon” and “Tuscaloosa Boneyard.” While not exactly cozies, these are not grim either.
Those books have earned her the Druid City Arts award for literature. Now we have her first collection of 15 stories, each about and named for the main female character.
Most of these women are of a certain age, sometimes downright old, but a few are girls just starting out. The stories are not avant-garde or cutting edge. I suspect they would not be well-received in an MFA workshop.
Several have what might be called O. Henry endings, when a reversal is sprung on the reader.
A few have surprise endings; things were not as they seemed.
A few even have the twist we might call “so it was all a dream after all,” which is definitely not in vogue, but can be pleasing for readers with more traditional tastes.
The title story, “Kaleidoscope Jane” which Breckinridge uses to conclude her volume, is perhaps best described as a fable, nearly Aesopian.
The action takes place near a shelter for homeless people, those going through a really rough patch. Katie and her mother had a conventional life but grandmother got sick, mom forgot to pay the insurance premiums and their house burned down. Now they live with Johnny, a one-armed man, and the mentally ill Gertrude.
And with Jane, who wears the same clothes every day, and smells bad but is not like the others. She seems somehow not to belong there.
Jane often has a kaleidoscope in her hand, lets young Katie look through it, finally gives it to her. “To help you remember life turns you right-side up and upside down and all manner of sideways. But somehow a person can end right-side up again.”
Several stories are of the “she’s leaving home” variety. Sadly, many of the lonely women are trapped either in their parents’ homes or in unhappy marriages and long to escape. There is the open road, but that’s dangerous. Some escape into a world of delusion. Amy has Carol and Megan as confidants, but we learn they are characters on a soap opera.
The author of this volume is a retired social worker and these experiences clearly influence her work.
The story “Jewel” concerns children in foster care, with all its complexities
The story “Eunice” has as protagonist a woman suffering from anger management issues, as they say. She is in court-ordered counseling but it does not seem to be working. Eunice is tormented by squatters who have invaded her house and won’t leave. Eunice plans to murder them all.
There is a surprise ending here and in several other stories when we learn the main character is not merely neurotic, but seized with dementia or hallucinating.
In the story “Madeline,” we watch a proud mother shopping with her two daughters, Erica and Janie. They are well-behaved children, causing no trouble at the store. Their eyes open and close but they say little, only, from time to time “mama.” We learn at the end Madeline is pushing a buggy with two dolls in it.
Reading these stories will make you look a little differently at the people you run across doing your daily chores.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.