Raymond Luczak has written and edited twenty-four books of fiction, non-fiction, plays, poetry—you name it, he’s written it. His latest offering, Compassion, Michigan: The Ironwood Stories, is a collection of sixteen short stories set in Ironwood, Michigan, his hometown. With one notable exception, all of these stories center on the lives and loves of Midwestern women, a departure from Luczak’s last collection of short stories, The Kinda Fella I Am, which focused exclusively on the disabled Gay experience.
Which is not to say that Luczak’s experiences as a Deaf Gay man do not inform these stories; in fact, the two stories that begin and end this collection (“Numbers Six and Seven,” “Independence Day”) feature a Deaf protagonist growing up in a hearing family, and it is impossible not to view them at least as partially autobiographical, the female protagonist notwithstanding. The subject of “The Traitor’s Wife” eventually comes out as Lesbian, and the narrator of “Stella, Gone” (although she does not say it in so many words) would now be considered ace. Several additional stories feature Gay characters as well, but the stories are not “about” them and their struggles; these stories are always about the women at their centers, women who deal with desire (frustrated or not), the demands of their families, infidelity, domestic violence, and the myriad experiences of everyday life.
This book is as much about Ironwood as it is about the women who lived and died there. Luczak includes many details about its geography and history; so much so, that I want to know how much of the setting is “real”–instead I went and looked up the Wikipedia article about Ironwood to compare. Set over most if its 130-year history, these stories retell Ironwood’s founding after the discovery of nearby lodes of iron ore, its expansion due to an influx of numerous immigrant communities, its booming heyday during the two World Wars, and eventual decline. “Yoopers” (for non-Midwesterners, this term describes inhabitants of the U. P. [Upper Peninsula] of Michigan) is a delightful story about acknowledging the unique qualities of where you grew up, whether you celebrate them or not. Two of my favorites imagine lost glimpses into small-town life at the beginning of the twentieth century, which are also glimpses into lost LGBT history. “The Ways of Men” re-creates the life of a transman who leaves his privileged life in Detroit for the relative anonymity of Ironwood; according to Luczak, it is based on a true story (although most of it has been lost to time). “Beginnings” is the poignant story about a marriage of convenience between two teachers—and when it suddenly becomes inconvenient.
“Beginnings” and “Stella, Gone” figure among my favorites in this collection for another reason: both retell part of the history of Ironwood, but both also are the recreations of the subject’s lives from the research and memories of the stories’ narrators. If being unable to tell your story is a living death (if not a literal one) as Rebecca Solnit states in the book’s epigraph, then these stories are affirmations of these women’s lives and choices, regardless of the circumstances they had to withstand, or the mistakes they made. Comparisons to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio seem inevitable, given the Midwest setting and the similar themes of isolation and loneliness; however, Luczak has not written a short story cycle (a novel in short stories) like Anderson did. Luczak has crafted an homage, not to Anderson, but rather to the place he grew up and the women who created it.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske