Fierce: Stories and a Novella by Hannah Holborn

Hannah Holborn’s prose is rife with poetic sensibilities in her debut of fiction, Fierce: Stories and a Novella. In the opening story, "We Were Scenes of Grief," the hometown to grieving teenage orphan, Penny Dreadful, a dilapidated and claustrophobic community, Holborn describes as “a cornered wildcat,” an apropos phrase which serves also the added function of describing the desperate outcome of Penny Dreadful’s tragic circumstances — and her personality’s resultant fangs and claws — to a tee. Penny’s grandmother, a character culled from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, lives in a “clinically depressed neighborhood”. And like that humongous Indian out of Ken Kesey’s classic, it's a mentally ill inmate, Penny’s debilitated grandmother, who pleasantly surprises the reader as being the key unlocking Penny (no-longer-Dreadful’s) poignant epiphany as she settles debts with her painful past and recognizes her potential (sans her tragicomic-goth-makeup'd-blue-dyed-hair-rebellion) and possible bright future ahead. This is inspirational, though unsentimental, storytelling.

Holborn’s style is crack-of-a-bat crisp. Like Annie Proulx or Flannery O'Connor before her, there’s economy and stinginess over wasted words — there simply aren’t any — each word's sardine’d in dense sentence tins, imbued more often than not with embedded symbols and metaphors that when happened upon, speaking for myself, evoke “whoa!” moments.

Take a good long gander at one such striking example in "If The World Was Flat"Judith Fellman (one could comment forever on Holborn’s Dickensian name creations — Penny Dreadful? Merlyn Shipperbottom? Rosa Quarrell? Cricket? Jeffrey Wonder?  at how these eccentric surname’s serve themselves as foreshadowing symbols, but time and space won’t allow), reminiscing about her deceased mother, depicts her as possessing “a doe-like grace”. Keep that doe in mind and return three pages earlier in the story when Judith, then thirteen, on a backpacking, father-mandated, coming-of-age ritual trip along the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington’s North Cascades, a trip she’d just as soon have opted out from, and her well meaning though subtly demeaning father spy “a doe peeking out from behind an alder”. Understand also that Judith’s mother, long before succumbing to "tan-induced melanoma" had abandoned by the time of this backpacking adventure, her idealistic, over-intellectualizing professor husband chronically disgusted by her lowbrow daily soap opera viewing habit, not for another man mind you (or woman) but for some simple peace of mind! Who wouldn’t want to leave a demanding, elitist academician like that? Anyway, Judith’s father -- guess what he does for the doe (this is some visually stunning symbolism): “Breaking his own rule about not feeding wild animals he gathered a handful of tender bitterbrush and held it out …. She [the doe] tested the bitterbrush with her teeth and then, disappointed, backed away to hide herself….” A touching, melancholic metaphor that seamlessly shows without contrivance and without hammering you over the head with it why the “tender, but bitter” offerings of an unintentionally but nevertheless insensitive husband to his wife, helped fell the Fellman marriage.

There’s much more in Fierce to set beneath the microscope (and I heartily recommend the interested reader — and how could you not be interested? — do so asap, and patiently pan for gold among these compelling currents as hermaphroditic Dulcey did in "The Fierce with the Fierce". But let’s step back briefly for the larger panoramic perspective, perhaps a vista as wide-ranging and sublime as the one Judith Fellman witnessed at an icy rest stop along Top of the World Highway in the remote Yukon interior, after she’s triumphantly conquered, staring out among the nameless snow ridden mountains, what had been until then, lifelong, incarcerating fears.

Fierce, I think, when I consider the unfortunate lives depicted; or, might they just be fortunate lives that've yet ascertained how fortunate they truly are, like Andy and Alice's lives, lives finally permitting themselves as parents to "pull their own strings" through the difficult daily dramas of raising a child born with special needs (Angelman's syndrome) in "We Danced Without Strings". Or, for that matter, what about the unfortunate-appearing lives, lives which when you glance at them look like sure shit, represented in this regard by the teenage girl, Gwen, afflicted with a cleft palate (albeit by now surgically repaired) who somehow sees herself so blessed she reaches out with a forgiving heart toward her childhood tormentor and nemesis who's about to do something suicidally stupid because her loser fiance dumped her for a stripper working at Dolls 'N More in "Like Utah's Bingham Canyon Mine"? And be sure to google Utah's Bingham Canyon Mine while you're at it, if, like me, you'd never heard of it before, for it's a magnificent, jaw-dropping image perfectly matching the emotional black hole created by the vast void of physical deformity.

So, Fierce, getting back to what I think, is ultimately about character, meaning both an artistic rendering of the traits of true character and also the imperfect, damaged and often mercilessly exploited lives which occasionally, inspirationally, after much heartache, bitterness, stubborn resistance, and graceful nudges from the voice of a spectacularly non-condemning God (read Seaweed), inevitably demonstrate the depths of suppressed character perhaps lying dormant all along.

Hannah Holborn knows a thing or two about true character, seems like to me, and how to effectively set characters down in impossible but eventually promising scenarios on the page, having (if I may paraphrase her publisher’s blurb) worked extensively teaching life skills to aboriginal women, inner-city youth, the mentally ill, and probably many other down-and-out outcasts and “freaks” -- and, I suspect, she's gleaned much character from a lot of her own unfortunate, similarly Fierce- types of personal experiences. Holborn, too, is downright earthy in her writing, did I mention that?, regaling the amused reader in the first paragraph of her novella, River Rising with unexpected, out-of-left-field riffs about sex toys — yessss, sex toys! — but always overarching the earthy, wisecracking musings of Holborn's streetwise sensibility, shines sheer elegance upon each page.