Jeff Vande Zande
Whistling Shade, 2010
Review by Kara Gheldof
Jeff Vande Zande’s Threatened Species is a collection of stories deeply entrenched in and in touch with the American landscape. Accompanied by five additional though unrelated short stories, the central novella is the story of a father and son learning how to cope with impending separation while on a road trip during their final two weeks together. It is heartbreaking and reflective and deeply personal, yet still manages to encompass its entire natural surroundings in one small world.
At the forefront of the titular story is the father, Ed Winters, and his son Danny, of an undetermined age, but most likely between 6 and 10. Danny is getting ready to move with his mother and stepfather to Paris, thanks to the latter’s new job, but before he goes, he gets to spend a final two weeks with his father, during which Ed has chosen to drive up north, taking in Michigan’s rich landscape without really taking anything in at all, as he is too preoccupied with worry and anger. Ed knows he may not see his son again for years following the move, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. His bitterness and frustrations are immediately evident—though wholly unidentifiable—to his young son.
The story is told in parallel narratives, primarily Danny’s and Ed’s, and both wholly encapsulate the characters in different ways. Danny’s point of view is in first person, told as only a child could tell it, looking up at the adults and the world around him as mysteries, things to be reveled at and awed. We are told he is fascinated by new words, and loves stringing them together, and his father is a distant yet eager figure from whom Danny is willing to learn. Vande Zande does an exceptional job at capturing this peculiar road trip—and the cold and bitter man behind the wheel, the appropriately named Ed Winters—through the eyes of a child earnestly seeking answers.
Ed, in stark contrast to his son, is a man who thinks he already has all the answers—about people, about the land, even about himself, at first. He gratuitously supplies his son with facts about towns and fish and becomes easily frustrated when Danny responds with seeming indifference. It’s obvious Ed wants some sort of unique bonding experience out of the trip, something he and Danny both can hold onto when they lose the proximity they’ve held onto when everything else was already tenuous from the divorce. Ed’s chapters are told in third person, and it’s no wonder, as Ed is a narrator who cannot be trusted. His emotions overtake him too easily, his temper flares, and his head is rarely in the right place. The reader is not meant to see things through Ed’s eyes.
The only other character whose point of view is represented is a man named Butch, a bounty hunter sent to track down Ed and retrieve Danny when the former makes up his mind not to give his son back. Butch’s first-person narrative appears in 90 pages in, and marks a stark contrast to the tone, somewhat disrupting the tone of the story, but it’s Vande Zande’s only misstep, and since the new direction takes us places faster than Ed’s meandering narrative, it serves a literary purpose after all.
Ever present throughout the novella—and each of the subsequent short stories as well—is an overarching sense of solitude and desperation. Vande Zande presents characters who are at the end of their respective ropes and desperately seeking a ground to stand on. The eloquent descriptions of the vast rivers Ed and Danny fish in, the howling of wolves at night and the road that stretches before them all contribute to the prevailing loneliness of its characters. Father and son spend a significant portion of the novella wondering if they’ll ever catch a grayling, a fish once native to Michigan but long since gone. Neither excels at communicating with the other, and Ed rarely wants to hear what Danny has to say about his new life. Other characters float in and out of their lives on the trip but Ed doesn’t want other men around, too insecure in his fears of replacement to allow another potential role model into Danny’s life as his stepfather has been let in. Many of Ed’s problems could be solved if he could only learn to let things go, but he tries too hard, and it becomes his downfall.
Jeff Vande Zande has a strong understanding of the unique bond between parent and child, which expresses itself in other ways throughout his short stories, each of which could be expanded to a full-length story in its own right. Though his prose deserves better labels the ‘sad’ and ‘beautiful,’ they nonetheless suit the book just right, as simple and natural as the stories told and the landscape in which his characters find themselves.
© Kara Gheldof, 2010