Jean Thompson, “Who Do You Love”

booksA single woman in her early thirties suffers burnout at work and in life.

(from Who Do You Love)

Her job was not to eradicate poverty, but to tend and manage it as you would a crop. Her job was to make poverty more tolerable. Sometimes she imagined the city’s misery as water backed up in a dam, passive but threatening, and herself as a kind of engineer, monitoring the pressure, opening sluices and closing valves. If you supplied one old woman with transportation to the doctor’s, the teenage prostitutes or the Vietnamese refugees living in church basements would somehow be appeased.

“Who Do You Love” is the title story of Thompson’s collection, published in 1999, which was a National Book Award finalist. I never thought I liked Thompson, to be honest, but I kept buying her books because I thought I should like her. People told me I would like her. I pulled this out the other day, intent upon giving her another try, and I’m so glad I did. I’ve read it twice already. The story is about a thirty-two-year-old woman named Judy Applebee who coordinates human services for her city. Thompson clearly knows what she’s talking about. I’ve worked a government job before, taking disability claims in a leaky office with thin partitions, where old ladies are named B.J. and everyone wants you to buy awful things out of catalogs, and she gets it exactly right. Thompson writes this story so much better than I ever could, and I’m so glad she did. I highly recommend you read this, particularly if you’ve ever worked a job where you wanted to make a difference, intended to make a difference, and became discouraged by the impossibility of the situation.

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