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Book Reviews

Small Marvels

Once, walking in the woods near dusk, I came upon a stand of pine trees and stopped short. The trees were blue. Blue. Over the years, I’ve stood before a painting of water lilies by Monet so long that the colors on the canvas and began to move. Watched shafts of evening sunlight fall through the trees in the park across from my house, illuminating first the silver chains on the swings, then the dented slide, finally settling on the red trashcan so that it shone like a gem. I remembered these things when I was reading Small Marvels, Scott Russell Sanders’ recently published novel in stories, which made it easy for me to believe in the wonders of the world revealed to the book’s main character, Gordon Mills. The book is a wonder itself, a captivating mix of tall tales, folk tales, fantasy, and reality that lays bare the joys and sorrow of ordinary life. 

Working as a jack of all trades for the fictional Indiana town of Limestone Falls, Gordon barely makes enough to make ends meet. The family home is in constant need of repair; he and his wife Mabel sleep in the leaky basement so that Mabel’s parents, Gordon’s mother, and the four Mills children can have the bedrooms. At fifty, his back is finicky from years of physical labor. 

But he’s a happy man, extraordinarily in tune with the natural world, utterly present in his life. Returning to the dump with a garbage truck full of trash one morning before dawn, he’s mesmerized by a bluish glow along the northern horizon. During his annual clean-up of a nearby cave, he finds the usual bats and spiders but also unicorns, griffins, dragons and centaurs. He and his son save the town from a plague of crows, shoveling trash from his pick-up truck to lure them to the dump where they live happily ever after. There’s a blizzard on the Fourth of July and Gordon leads the parade with the snowplow. The occasional bout of sadness makes his beard turn blue. 

Real. Possible. Impossible. It makes no difference to Gordon and, by the end of the book, it made no difference to me, either. I delighted in the absurdity of events; I was moved by Gordon’s compassion and generosity. I laughed out loud at the antics of “grands,” who used their who spend their social security checks on things like anti-gravity machines and trips to the casino, at Gordon’s hilarious attempt to talk to his son about sex, and at his daughter’s fear of vegetables, cured by planting a garden so successful that corn grew to the second story windows. 

In Small Marvels, Scott Russell Sanders has created a loving, wonderfully quirky family by way of a series of stories that defy categorization and go deep in their exploration of marriage, aging, obligation, and forgiveness. While they are not always true to the way life is, they are unfailingly true to how it feels.  

Scott Russell Sanders was born in Memphis, Tennessee. His father came from a family of cotton farmers in Mississippi, his mother from an immigrant doctor’s family in Chicago. He spent his early childhood in Tennessee and his school years in Ohio. He earned his undergraduate degree from Brown University and his Ph.D. in English from the University of Cambridge. He spent his teaching career at Indiana University, where he was a Distinguished Professor of English.

Among his more than twenty books are novels, collections of stories, and works of personal nonfiction, including Staying Put, Writing from the Center, Hunting for Hope, and A Private History of Awe. In the past decade he has published A Conservationist Manifesto, his vision of a shift from a culture of consumption to a culture of caretaking; Earth Works, a selection of his best essays from the past thirty years; the novel Divine Animal; Dancing in Dreamtime, a collection of eco-science fiction stories; and Stone Country: Then & Now, a new and enlarged edition of his documentary narrative co-authored with photographer Jeffrey Wolin. His children’s books include Aurora Means Dawn, Warm as Wool, Meeting Trees, and The Floating House.

Sanders has received the Lannan Literary Award, the Associated Writing Programs Award in Creative Nonfiction, the Great Lakes Book Award, the Kenyon Review Literary Award, the John Burroughs Essay Award, and the Indiana Humanities Award, among other honors, and he has received support for his writing from the Lilly Endowment, the Indiana Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. The Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature named him the 2009 winner of the Mark Twain Award; in 2010 he was named the National Winner of the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award; in 2011 the Fellowship of Southern Writers presented him with the Cecil Woods, Jr. Award in Nonfiction; and in 2012 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Barbara Shoup is the author of eight novels for adults and young adults, and two books about writing. Her poetry and essays have been published in numerous literary magazines. The recipient of the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Regional Indiana Authors Award, fellowships from the Indiana Arts Commission, and Creative Renewal Fellowships from the Arts Council of Indianapolis. She is the Writer-in-Residence at the Indiana Writers Center and a faculty member at Art Workshop International.

Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.