“History,” writes Veronica Schanoes, “is a fairytale.”
These words come at the midway point of Schanoes debut short story collection, Burning Girls and Other Stories. The subtitle kicks off a particularly sharp-toothed tale in which the legendary anarchist Emma Goldman takes a brooding cup of tea with the equally legendary (if somewhat less well-sourced) Baba Yaga.
But the statement also serves a broader purpose, acting as a coalescing thesis for the philosophy of Burning Girls—the idea that what lies behind us, in newspapers, and photographs, textbooks and personal memories, is not just fiction. It is, instead, a fluid and magical text, a spellbook from which our futures are conjured.
Burning Girls plays out this thesis over the course of thirteen stories that feel almost excavated, hauled out from deep and sometimes quite dark places. The result is a diverse haul of gems that draw from everything from real-world history to personal memory, eldritch fairy tales to eerie modern metaphors. Like all things dug out from darkness, there is ugliness aplenty to be found here—but there is incredible beauty too, found in works both raw and refined.
The real diamonds in the collection appear when Schanoes takes history-as-fairytale almost literally, digging her hands into painful public history and kneading out fantasies that feel breathtakingly real. The inherited trauma of Jewish history proves to be particularly fertile territory. In “Among the Thorns”, the first story in the collection, a uniquely Jewish revenge tale plays out as a young girl pursues justice for her murdered father, in what becomes an act of rebellion against both the familiar and foreign forces which dominate her life. In “Emma Goldman Takes Tea With the Baba Yaga”, Schanoes observes the spirits that haunt Jewish revolutionaries across time, from the hags of Eastern European myth at the turn of the century, to the creatures of doubt and debate still stalking Manhattan leftists today.
And in “Burning Girls”, the collection’s titular novella, magic, politics, faith, and trauma bleed together like the aftermath of a crime. Arcane Jewish mythology is what brings Deborah, the story’s protagonist, into fatal contact with a demonic presence in the Old Country; deadly anti-Semitism sends her across the sea to the sweatshops of the Lower East Side. And the grinding force of capitalistic greed is what brings her story to a climax painfully identifiable to readers aware of America’s labor history. On its own, the story is a bold and nuanced exploration of Schanoes strengths as a writer; as a capstone to the collection, Burning Girls sets the simmering rawness of full collection into a gorgeously solid form.
Beyond Jewish history, other iterations of pasts both real and imaginary prove equally powerful in Schanoes hands. “Alice: A Fantasia” toys with the uncomfortable origins of Wonderland, musing on the impact of an imposed fiction on both the real Alice Liddel and her sister Ina. (The story concludes with nothing less than a literary explosion set off against the particular walls of Lewis Carroll’s text.) In “Phosphorus”, perhaps the most lividly detailed and powerful story in the collection, the history of labor rights entwines with personal horror as a match-girl in 1880’s London bears witness to a revolutionary strike against the firm that has fatally poisoned her.
Other stories in the collection are somewhat less successful in slicing quite so close to the bone. Schanoes’ more literal interpretations of classical fairy tales, and further adventures with Alice in Wonderland (as in “Ballroom Blitz”, “Serpents”, and “Lost in the Supermarket”) punch somewhat less hard as they wander off into fantastical detail.
Still, Burning Girls maintains an engagingly toothy weirdness throughout its length that always lures the reader in to some deeper reckoning. Whether she leads you to a shtetl, a seedy dive bar, or the terrifyingly sterile aisles of an endless supermarket, Schanoes is always essentially looking to excavate the buried nugget of pain from which her stories—and history, and fairy tale—collectively crystalize.
After all, the burning referenced in the collection’s title always starts somewhere. The fiery coal at its center might be an agonizing loss, a terminal condition, mental illness, or a bad decision. But whatever it is, Schanoes is always intent on revealing the ugly and utterly magnetic thing that set her girls (and sometimes boys) on fire.
The resulting flames, the words that lick their way off the page, are always painful. (Burning Girls is not a collection of stories by which to warm a comforting cup of cocoa.) And sometimes they are destructive and murderous, almost akin to a physical and psychological autopsy—indelible, but awash in a single color.
But often, the result is glorious despite the pain. Along with destruction, these stories paint a picture of illumination, inspiration, and explosive life. Burning Girls makes profound demands on how we view the history that is fairy tale, and it challenges how we interact with our own apparently unmagical present. But you close the book feeling somehow clear-eyed, a little bit better equipped by Schanoes’ imagination to interpret all of the fires around you… and maybe do something beautiful with all of that light.
Burning Girls and Other Stories is available from Tordotcom Publishing.
Michal Schick is a writer, a reader, a television-lover and a coffee addict. She is earning her Masters Degree in Creative Writing by writing stories about dragons and sentient pharmaceuticals, loves semi-colons, and has a confessed affinity for breathlessly long sentences.