Garden for the Blind
By Kelly Fordon
Wayne State University Press
Reviewed by Ellen Birkett Morris
Ever since Elizabeth Strout threw down the gauntlet with her wonderful character Olive Kitteridge, linked stories have grown in popularity. They can be fun and challenging as the reader works to connect the dots and find the heart of the story. There is Olive standing ramrod straight through the center of the collection that bears her name. There are the wild trips through time with a gang of people in the music industry in A Visit from the Goon Squad.
In Kelly Fordon’s new collection, Garden for the Blind, place predominates. That place is economically challenged Detroit and the affluent suburbs that surround the city. The race and class challenges afforded by having people of vastly different means living in close proximity are at the center of the book.
These issues are explored through the experiences of Alice Townley, a resident of a affluent suburb outside of Detroit. As the story starts Alice’s sister dies in an accident. The stories that follow show the reverberations as Alice, her friends, and boyfriend Mike, graduate from youthful pranks to truly reprehensible behavior. Their behavior, which largely goes unpunished, stands in contrast to that of the inner city kids, who are punished for the mere suspicion of wrongdoing.
The stories are a sharp look at how upbringing and circumstance shape our view of the world. “Opportunity Cost” deals with a high school teacher who has to decide whether or not to sign a petition in opposition to opening up suburban schools for urban students or risk losing his job. His decision takes place against the backdrop of a heated debate about race among the students.
It is hard to have sympathy for the well-to-do kids who are drawn to drugs and act out, no matter how neglected they are by their parents. The stories shine when we find other ways into the characters as in “The Guest Room.” Mike, who is staying with his grandmother, helps an elderly neighbor Ralph, who is suffering from PTSD. We see Mike through Ralph’s eyes:
For the first time Ralph noticed how skinny he was—his leg bone
outlined beneath the black pants looked like a tire iron jutting out
from his hip.
The two damaged souls bond and Ralph gives Mike career advice that will change his path, if only for a while.
We see Alice’s awakening in “Trees from Heaven” as she mourns the loss of a former co-worker’s daughter and ventures into the woman’s bad neighborhood to offer condolences.
The stories comes full circle as Alice’s own daughter serves community service in a garden for the blind, which becomes a place of reckoning and redemption for the white suburbanites and the inner city youth who live outside of their sphere of influence.
This feat is achieve with the help of Buddhist monks, who are able to view a destructive act from a different perspective and offer a solution of sorts.
As in life, there are no perfect endings. Fordon tackles the messy, complex truth about race and class in her interesting stories.