The name E.L. Doctorow evokes the expression "the great American novel." His books --- BILLY BATHGATE, RAGTIME, THE WATERWORKS and CITY OF GOD, to name a few --- exemplify the recurring themes and enduring ethos of America's landscape and peoples. And SWEET LAND STORIES, Doctorow's latest collection of short stories, continues his literary tradition of writing about uniquely American folk.
In "A House on the Plains," Aunt Dora is a scam artist who packs up her family, leaves (escapes, really) Chicago, and moves to the country. Once there, the scheming and scamming begin anew, displaying Doctorow's fascination with and uncanny understanding of the darker, seedier side of human nature.
This theme persists in "Baby Wilson," but is tinged with a compassion that has become the hallmark of many of Doctorow's questionable characters. Karen, who is not right of mind, kidnaps a baby; the deed is malicious, but the desire for a child is not. In fact, it's innocent and pure. One can't help but feel sympathy for both her and her beau, who makes every effort to protect her and do the right thing by her.
"Jolene: A Life" is a study of a life spiraling downward, and at the center is a young lady who appears incapable of regaining some semblance of control, by no fault of her own. Her tale is heroically tragic.
Doctorow gives us an odd slice of life in "Walter John Harmon" --- cult, commune life, that is. Harmon, a former mechanic in a small Kansas town, preaches the goal of Seventh Attainment. In what won't be a surprising plot event, Harmon absconds with the community's wealth; but what might surprise you is the community's unwavering and blind devotion to what he preached, even after he's gone.
And finally, "Child, Dead, In the Rose Garden" is a powerful mystery packed into a slim few pages. A body, a detective, a deception.
Doctorow is at his best in SWEET LAND STORIES, tales about people in all their raw humanity.
Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on April 26, 2011