Battleborn: Stories by Claire Vaye Watkins (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012. 304 pp)
Born in California, Claire Vaye Watkins is an author, co-director of the Mojave School, and a visiting assistant professor at Princeton University. She graduate from the University of Nevada Reno and earned her MFA from Ohio State University. Battleborn, her collection of short stories won the Story Prize, the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.
During my graduate years at Seattle Pacific University, I had the opportunity to choose a practicum which applied the topics of our courses to life after education. While some fashioned their work into their current job, others hoped to form a practicum around a desired endpoint, work best achieved years into a career path.
My project fit among the latter. An avid fan of the written word, I decided to forge my learning into a memoir. I held no hope at the time, nor do I still particularly aim toward an exclusive writing career, but I knew writing would, does, and will continue to be an important aspect of my work.
So I dove into the project, enjoying every moment of the 60,000 words I wrote.
Having turned in the project, nervous with expectation about what my advisor would think, the response I received interested me. The grade doesn’t necessarily matter—don’t worry! I didn’t fail—but the comment that resonated most surrounded the idea of overarching themes.
The manuscript I submitted had its sections of wit, gravitas, and narrative, but each chapter was a snapshot of my life with little connection to other sections of the draft. My advisor encouraged me to continue working on finding the theme behind each story. It’s ok to write short stories; just make sure they form connections for the reader.
What Short Stories Ought to Be
Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn exhibits what a collection of short stories ought to be. Throughout the book ,which spans centuries and highlights the hopeful-but-mundane characters of the Nevada wilderness, Watkins connects her stories through an idea of place.
Whether she discusses a hermit on a dried lake bed, escorts on a bunny ranch, or the frail relationship between two panhandlers during the gold rush, location—in all its grim, dusty, and decrepit glory—forms the foundation of the narrative.
Nevada is the main character:
“The curse, excavated from the silver vein and weighted by the heavy ore, settled on the nation’s newest free state” (2).
This land and the curse it holds on people unfolds in the relationships Watkins develops in her stories. The reader quickly learns—people are unkind to each other:
“She will be thirty when she walks out on a man who in the end, she’ll decide, didn’t love her enough, though he in fact did love her, but his love wrenched something inside him, and this caused him to hurt her” (43).
Even more, the setting tousles its characters, shifting people, once kind, into people now cruel. Watkins notes during her story on the gold rush:
“One thing I learned from the diggings is that a love of destruction is in every man’s heart, somewhere” (207).
Nothing ruins the bond of blood in family like power, the potential of wealth, and the uncomfortable frontier of Nevada.
Too often, Watkins’ characters struggle to escape their minds and the struggles they conceive. She writes,
“The mind is a mine. So often we revisit its winding, unsound caverns when we ought to stay out” (228).
A Promising Debut
Battleborn unsettles from story to story. While some stories offer more intrigue than others, the connecting thread of the Nevada desert and its devastating influence on people runs throughout. This book originally caught my eye because the pitch likened Watkins to an up-and-coming Cormac McCarthy. While Watkins’ work is nowhere near as brutal as McCarthy’s prose, I see the connection in the description of human depravity.
This book represents what my practicum should have been. It knows its voice; it has a direction; it makes connections with its readers.
Battleborn is raw, heart splitting, and a thoroughly good read.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
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