Review by Emily Webber
A Girl Goes into the Forest by Peg Alford Pursell shines light on the transitions and transformations we go through in life and the changing relationships between parents and children. In each of the 78 hybrid stories and fables in the collection, Pursell conjures up the magic and darkness of fairy tales. These stories span the times and places of a lifetime, showing how people seesaw between knowing and unknowing and from life to death. It is clear from the opening line in the first story that Pursell’s characters are searching:
Tentative, curious, uncertain, alive, she followed him into the woods, moving in the direction where perhaps she imagined the rest of her life waited. So ready for something to happen (5).
Present throughout A Girl Goes into the Forest from that first story of a woman following a man into the woods, is a fairy tale feel. Although there is no dramatic action of a typical fairy tale, this is not a criticism. Pursell’s stories offer glimpses into lives that are as deep and rewarding as longer work. It is her shortest stories, some just a paragraph long, that are the most powerful. Pursell is a master of the flash fiction form, knowing which details to reveal and the moments that convey so much more than what is written on the page. Each of these stories opens up an entire life in these small spaces delivering characters that contain secrets and dreams and embody the complicated yet wonderful mess of being alive.
At the outset, it is hard not to look for connections in these stories, especially since several in the first section feature mothers and daughters. Many of the stories have unnamed characters and locations not detailed, and this further adds to the speculation of recurring characters. But it is better to let this go, a connection doesn’t materialize, and these stories will be more enjoyable if the focus is not on searching for one. What makes A Girl Goes into the Forest a true pleasure to read as a whole collection is that when reading these stories there is a sense of time passing, detailing the impact of the shifting stages of life:
But life is never only a moment. Through the passing days, she would become other selves as the moments allowed. Yet, she would never forget the one inside who’d been the first to welcome her to herself (36).
Pursell visits all these moments that make up a life, showing the similarities between our experiences and the wonderful details that make them unique.
Two standout themes tackled in these stories are relationships between mothers and their children and aging. In “Burning,” a daughter considers the ownership her parents have over her, but ultimately how things change: “But a life gets lived, a mind becomes one’s own, perhaps, while no one’s watching” (224). Throughout the collection, Pursell shows the raw emotion and helplessness of being a parent both when the child is a newborn baby and a teenager. She also explores growing older and adult children watching their parents’ health deteriorate. In keeping a woman who lives alone gets on a stool for a jar of hazelnuts and falls:
Fast and slow she fell to the floor, the wooden stool toppling over, too—a bang on the head that truly stunned her. Moments passed. Or a lifetime. (Her girl, her long lost girl—a kaleidoscope of savored images cycled through her mind: blonde braids, graceful hand on the violin bow, enigmatic smile on the driver’s license photo) (222).
It is best to take a slow pace through these stories, so the sheer number of them doesn’t become overwhelming. In “Junk Shop Photo” old photos surface and call up memories:
Someone will buy the old photos in a junk shop seventy-some years later and wonder only at the fog-like blurs, some phenomena of mistakes long since eradicated (34).
With the stories in A Girl Goes into the Forest, Pursell is allowing the reader to peer into many different photos and view worlds that shift and transform—in dark and terrifying ways and lovely and comforting ways.
Peg Alford Pursell is the author of another collection of flash fiction and prose poetry, Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow (2017.) She is the founder of WTAW Press and Why There Are Words, an award-winning literary reading series that takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area.
A Girl Goes into the Forest by Peg Alford Pursell
Dzanc Books, 2019, $16.95 (paper)
Emily Webber has published fiction, essays, and reviews in the Ploughshares Blog, The Writer magazine, Five Points, Split Lip Magazine, Brevity, and elsewhere. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. You can read more at www.emilyannwebber.com.