The Effects of Urban Renewal on Mid-Century America by Jeff Esterholm
Published October 2023 by Cornerstone Press, University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point
Reviewed by Adelaide Whitehouse
Legend has it Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a short story in six words. He came up with: For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn. That six-word short story gives every writer something to think about and perhaps to emulate. Whether or not Hemingway actually wrote it isn’t the point here; the clarity, the brevity, the soul of it, is. Hemingway knew his way around a short story. Jeff Esterholm does, too.
Jeff Esterholm’s collection of short stories—twenty-six in all—reveals lives, loves, and losses among inhabitants of several Midwest towns, most notably in the fictional Port Nicollet set at the southern shore of Lake Superior. Many of the stories take place in the mid-twentieth century, when the men portrayed are often of a type: tough, mean, hard-drinking; raised in poor or hand-to-mouth families. The women, too, fulfill stereotypes of that era; married and harried with kids, or good-time girls (good for only one thing), that the guys like to smack around.
Many of the stories revolve around vengeance being exacted on someone over an old resentment. There are a few linked stories that revisit the mysterious death of a boy named Patrick on his way to deliver newspapers one Sunday morning, although who kills him remains a mystery. The stories vary in length (some only three pages), but many do present a murder taking place, what led to it, and quite often the messy aftermath for the killer(s).
Esterholm delivers his stories with a strong sense of place. The reader is rooted immediately in the stories and can feel the grittiness, the poverty, the smells as Esterholm unwinds his yarns. He has a clear grasp on how to take a reader where he wants to go. His writing is compact and succinct, often lending itself to a re-read in order to be clearly understood. This type of writing is also fresh and interesting as it holds the reader’s attention. There are no wasted words.
There is plenty of murder, O’Henry twists that surprise, and a sense of dread that accompanies many of the stories, so much so that it would be wise not to read these late at night or, god forbid, alone.
Reviewer Adelaide Whitehouse is a former Sign Language interpreter and author of the Dana Demeter Mystery Series (Signs of Murder and Signs of the Father). Her first book was a finalist in the Indie Fiction category of the Chicago Writers Association 2022 Book of the Year. Her books can be purchased at www.amazon.com/author/afw. Addy and her husband, Bob Carty, moved to Waukesha from Skokie, IL, in 2020.
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