Review: RUTTING SEASON by Mandeliene Smith

by Helen Patterson

Rutting Season is a brutal, attention-grabbing title well-suited to these brutal, attention-grabbing stories by Pushcart-nominated Mandeliene Smith. Her debut collection of short stories is harrowing as it follows characters through upheaval and change.

Strong openings are crucial, especially in short stories. In Rutting Season, every story opens with an arresting image. The first piece, “Mercy,” starts: “The children’s puppy was run over at the end of May” (1). Here is a specific image that demands emotional involvement. How did the puppy get run over? Who are the children? How will they react and recover? This type of hook is typical of this collection. A reader cannot help but be gripped from the first sentence.

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Throughout the collection, nerves are fraught and emotions are high. Smith is an eloquent writer of heartache and pain. In “You the Animal,” a worn-out social worker, Jared, avoids too closely examining his own biases: “Why he was shaking as he walked out into the brightness of the street, why his heart felt like an unpinned grenade, were questions he didn’t ask himself” (164). Rage also bubbles beneath the surface of the stories, spilling over as characters take out their frustrations on the world. In two linked stories, “The Someday Cat” and “You the Animal,” a young, unloved girl attacks an ugly kitten—only to then be thrown around herself by Jared.

Death is present in all these pieces, but Smith is never gratuitous. Instead, death becomes quotidian. The final piece, “Animals,” starts: “We killed the porcupines because they were sneaking into the barn at night and chewing on the floor beams. My father walked right up to them and shot them through their little eyes” (213). It continues with a catalog of death, of the pragmatism crucial to running a farm, the paradox of protecting animals in order to eat them. Everyone must face their complicity.

Endings are equally crucial in storytelling. Often it’s difficult to know when to end a story—writers might cut a piece off too soon or spin the story out too long; both mistakes can ruin an otherwise satisfying story. Smith’s endings are elegant, perfectly timed, and just as emotionally involved as her openings. Having come through crises, having passed through rage and grief and death, the characters, at the end, have learned some ugly truth about life and themselves.

Some characters come through their harrowing experiences with acceptance, ready to heal. In “Siege,” Pam reaches this state after unrelenting misfortune, finally relinquishing a life that’s no longer open to her. As soon as she does, something “rushe[s] loose in her” (21), and she finds herself able to move on. The unnamed wife in “Friday Night” comes through grief to serenity: “Her lungs were heavy and sodden but her mind was quiet, clear for the first time in a long while” (120). Others, such as Amber in “Siege,” find themselves narrowed and sharpened, ready to fight back against a world that has repeatedly cut them down.

The variation in endings keeps the stories refreshing and unpredictable. This is a masterful tactic for a debut work. Every one of Smith’s pieces stands out, and every one is worth reading twice.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.

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