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Touching short stories set in Missouri Ozarks evoke universal emotions

Touching short stories set in Missouri Ozarks evoke universal emotions

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In one of the best stories in his accomplished collection about residents of the Missouri Ozarks, Steve Wiegenstein demonstrates the breadth of his talent.

“The Fair” features, in turn, a curious but conscientious teenage girl; her would-be boyfriend; a cantankerous animal overseer; a sketchy carney running a somewhat suspicious booth; and the goth woman who catches his eye. All make contact on a beautiful summer evening at the county fair.

Their various scenes leave a definite impression, relationships that come together to contribute to an overall mosaic. They combine in the same way as the scattered lights of the book’s title, which a character in another story describes this way, as he climbs to the top of a ridge to look down on his town:

“House lights, streetlights, business lights, all spread out in the valley, seemingly random but somehow connected, if only he could see the pattern.”

The stories in “Scattered Lights” make those connections with characters and prose that are basic, without ornament or flourish, but still touch the audience and make readers take notice and nod in recognition and appreciation.

Take these seemingly simple sentences:

“For this was a genuine secret, not one of the idle, fine-spun fictions that Piedmont relishes so greatly. It was the real thing, the kind that wrecks lives ….”

“My husband loved me, but after the first few years he didn’t love me very much. That was the way we were then; the husband went about his business, the wife went about hers, and you didn’t talk of love.”

“That was the exciting thing: to be wanted that much, to be the object of such craving. It made her feel powerful, and she could understand why some girls fell victim to that sensation, to be wanted so badly, that they ended up doing foolish things.”

Combine such spare but elegant language with the life in small Ozark towns — placid on the surface, but with universal emotions simmering underneath — and you have the makings of an understated but undeniable impression, something a reader can remember and ponder long after the book is closed.

Wiegenstein, a retired college professor, lives in Columbia, Missouri, and has published a trilogy of novels set in Civil War-era Missouri. These contemporary stories aren’t heavy on plot. Instead, they concentrate on scene, painting evocative vignettes of life in the Ozarks.

The death of a reclusive veteran, a one-night stand that ends in an argument, a fledgling salesman trying desperately to make a positive connection — these are situations that no doubt occur regularly in spots like Mountain View or Marquand, Pine Hill or Piedmont. Wiegenstein brings them to life in an unhurried way, featuring protagonists that may be male or female, young or old, well-off or less so, sometimes all in the same story.

So read “Scattered Lights” if you’d like to escape the craziness of this abnormal year and instead find respite and basic truths in normal Ozark towns. It’s well worth the trip.

Dale Singer retired in 2017 after a 45-year career in journalism in St. Louis. He lives in West St. Louis County.

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