Connie Willis, “A Letter from the Clearys”

9780345540652A girl living with her family deep in the woods finds a long lost letter.

(from The Best of Connie Willis)

My hands are a real mess. This winter I’ve gotten about a hundred burns on the back of my hands from that stupid wood stove of ours. One spot, just above my wrist, I keep burning over and over so it never has a chance to heal. The stove isn’t big enough and when I try to jam a log in that’s too long the same spot hits the inside of the stove every time. My stupid brother David won’t saw them off to the right length. I’ve asked him and asked him to please cut them shorter, but he doesn’t pay any attention to me.

I asked Mom if she would please tell him not to saw the logs so long, but she didn’t. She never criticizes David. As far as she’s concerned he can’t do anything wrong just because he’s twenty-three and was married.

Yeah, that’s the stuff. I love a story that offers a ground-level view of a worldwide incident. In this case, civilization seems to have been brought down by nuclear war. “A Letter from the Clearys” was first published in 1983, when nuclear annihilation was a more popular nightmare. This story reminded me of Peter Heller’s 2012 novel The Dog Stars, Which I read earlier this year. It also offered a rural and solitary view of post-civilization survivors (if I recall correctly, disease was the killer in that one). I bet you both will hold up for a long time; Willis and Heller are tapping into a thrilling/terrifying question we’ve all probably asked ourselves: If society went to hell, could we go back to living like pioneers?

Music purists turn up their noses at greatest hits compilations, but this thick, cheap collection was hard to resist (even though I was looking for a Willis novel at the time). Each story here comes with a postscript; in this one the author talks about the mountain town that inspired this story and offers advice for struggling writers facing rejection letters.

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