“Who is at the center of the stories we tell about pregnancy?” I asked myself while reading “Shapeshifting,” the titular story of Michelle Ross’s second collection of stories. The protagonist was contemplating the title Rosemary’s Baby: “I can’t decide whether that wording makes the baby or Rosemary the subject of the film.” Her husband decides it’s obviously Rosemary who is the subject, the baby just a possession. I wasn’t so sure.
The question follows throughout the collection. Who are these stories about, and which of the protagonists’ identities are most central? Because the women in these stories are, of course, shapeshifters. The journey of pregnancy and motherhood is the most obvious shift at play, but never are the women’s other identities far behind. These women are daughters and grandmothers, mothers-in-law, wives, all while being women, and often while being mothers. They are the perceived and the perceivers. The victims and the abusers. In a formal sense, they are protagonists as much as they are secondary characters, those around whom the story revolves, even as their gaze brings others to the forefront.
The antagonists here are as varied as the shapeshifters. Often, they are men, but they are also other mothers, other women, daughters, daughters-in-law, grocery store employees, assaultants on a jog, random children, and the infinite pressures society places on mothers. In the opening story, “After Pangaea,” it is as much Pete (“a.k.a. “The Daddy Sage,” the protagonist’s husband turned daddy blogger) and his merry band of friends as it is an education system that forces parents to wait in a line outside a kindergarten to get their child a coveted spot, and the ever-present idea that a “good” father is worthy of admiration and praise while a “good” mother is doing the bare minimum. When you are an unsupported, or at best not-supported-enough mother, almost everything around you is antagonistic.
Some of Ross’s best moments are dropping tidbits of information that make the stable become unsteady. She is expert at dispensing unexpected information at just the right moment. Take “Keeper Four,” a story about a woman who works as a caretaker at a research facility, a mother of sorts to the animals and children being studied there. The story opens with a direct hit: “When the dying strikes the research facility, Keeper Four is alone in the bathroom.” The reader knows from the first paragraph that all but two of the facility’s staff have simply and suddenly died. But it is not until four pages later—when Keeper Four is thinking about her job, about the labels the facility management places on their employees, and about how she suspects her own label is a product of her gender identity—that it is mentioned that another job option in the world of this story is “to clean up nuclear waste… or mine for radium.” In an instant, the topography of the story has changed. Ross’s dialogue, too, is spectacular, both realistic and cutting.
One of the standout stories comes toward the end of the collection, “The Pregnancy Game,” the only story to not prominently feature a mother figure or mother-to-be. In it, a group of girls play a game in the woods, organized by one of their number. They are given a status (pregnant or not pregnant), roll a die, and then advance forward a number of spaces and read their fate off a paper plate, options such as “You’re a slut who had casual sex and then took a morning-after pill. Go back to start.” The participating girls are confused; there’s no good outcome, pregnant or not. It is a brief but hard story, one about loss and the backwards laws women are still fighting against in this country. Consequently, it is the story that best captures womanhood: these are girls just entering the seventh grade, and already they are grappling with the consequences of pregnancy, Right to Life activists, late-term loss, their sexuality and gender and what these mean. Already, they are learning what rights and freedoms they and their bodies don’t have.
Through all these stories weave themes of awareness (or lack thereof). Even the characters we are rooting for (and we’re certainly not cheering for all of them, see “What Doesn’t Kill You”) can be blind to their failings. Like the mother in “Lifecycle of an Ungrateful Daughter,” who after giving birth wants nothing more than to be a good mother to her daughter, and yet spends the next 26 years wronging, resenting, and purposely angering her firstborn, all the while declaring her daughter doesn’t “know the first thing about not being loved by [her] parents.”
Readers are also often aware of the gaze, who is perceiving and perceived. In “Winkelsucher,” Oona, a mother and photographer watches The Marina Experiment–an 18-minute film created by Marina Lutz out of the audio, video, 10,000 photographs of her taken by her father during the first 16 years of her life–with a friend, Damon (not a photographer). “According to Damon, the archive stands out, too, because of its enormity and because Marina wasn’t a willing subject. “All those videos of her sleeping!” He points out to Oona. Oona is left pondering the photo she took right before Damn arrived, of her son Max asleep on the floor, and thinking to herself “that all children are experiments–messy, uncontrolled, long-term experiments.” Ross’s collection proves that motherhood is much the same: messy, uncontrolled, and long term. And here we are, the voyeurs, watching the intimate moments.
Mid-way through “The Sand and the Sea,” the protagonist remembers crabs dragged out of the ocean on the same day she was dragged out by the current and had to fight her way back in because her mother could not swim to rescue her. “The crabs don’t move inside the wire box behind her, as though they are content being caught or, otherwise, already dead, though I know they’re not. Always, my mother drops them into the boiling water alive.” Dropped alive into boiling water feels an apt metaphor for the making of a mother, and for these stories.
Publisher: Stillhouse Press
Publication date: Nov. 2nd, 2021
Reviewed by Kathryn Ordiway