In a way, Little Sinners is a book of ghost stories — although often the ghosts its characters encounter are themselves.
This is Tampa resident Karen Brown's second collection of short stories, after Pins and Needles (2007), which won the Grace Paley Prize for short fiction. Brown, who earned a doctorate from the University of South Florida's creative writing program and teaches there, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize for Little Sinners.
It's an elegant, beautifully modulated collection of stories. Each stands alone, but common themes and tones echo from one to another, creating a mosaic of wonder, longing and loss in women's lives.
The 11 stories in Little Sinners are firmly grounded in the real world, whether it's the "endless letter-writing, and grape-flavored ice cubes, and gum-wrapper chains" of an adolescent girl's summer in the title story or the "lipstick-stained napkins, toothpick American flags, shards of Noritake, a pair of beaded mules with a broken heel" in the debris field of a suburban cocktail party in Swimming.
But in many of the stories that real world takes an eerily unsettling turn, most often into a mysterious past. In the haunting Stillborn, a young couple moves into a seaside house. The wife, very pregnant, decides to plant bulbs in the yard, but her trowel turns up tiny human bones.
Frightened, she goes to the nearby house of an older woman who has lived there most of her life. Mrs. Merrick has a sad but soothing explanation: The previous owners lost a baby born too early. But those bones don't rest easy. When Brown takes us into Mrs. Merrick's memories, still sharp as a blade, we find that the story is much more complicated.
Stillborn is one of many stories in the collection that focus on girls in the midst of sexual awakening, which renders them both empowered and vulnerable, though they hardly understand either. We see that in the childhood recollections of Esme, the main character in An Heiress Walks Into a Bar, whose family crumbled when she was 12; even as an adult she can hardly make herself think about why her grandfather gave her a car for that birthday, or why her mother was so horrified by the gift.
In other stories, adult women struggle with the consequences of sexuality, too, especially infidelity. The protagonist of Swimming finds that her broken-off affair with a neighbor, its zenith a lusty twist on John Cheever's classic story The Swimmer, has become the stuff of local legend — but that does little to fill the hollow in her heart.
Other stories deal with that most common consequence of sexuality, motherhood. In the collection's resonant final story, Housewifery, a group of suburban moms discover a new branch off their upscale neighborhood's paved walking trail, a dirt path through woods that leads to a hilltop meadow with an improbable stream-fed pond.
They spend much of the summer there, carting kids and towels and snacks up the hill to bask in their secret spot. They fear it may be ruined when they realize the neighbor whose lot the path abuts, a lawyer with a grown son, is suddenly at home in the daytime. But the last thing Kate Curry wants to do is shoo them off. She becomes a welcoming host to them all, even a sort of mother figure herself to the moms, if your mother served you lots of tequila sunrises.
They never ask why Kate is home all day, just as they never try to find out about their hilltop oasis: "Someone mentions researching the site, but this idea is quickly discarded. We've heard about family gravesites and ghost legends from teenagers who seek them out on Halloween: the grave of the two-year-old girl who died from diptheria, whose grief-stricken mother saved the apple she'd eaten that held her little tooth prints, the woods haunted by screams of a Native American woman murdered by British soldiers. We don't want to know too much."
But in Housewifery, and throughout Little Sinners, ignorance rarely turns out to be bliss, and knowing too much sometimes comes too late.