- Stories for a Lost Child by Carter Meland
I wonder if the most compelling literature doesn't always somehow address regenerating from loss; if it doesn't somehow celebrate—quietly or exuberantly—the impulse of humans and other-than-humans to consistently seek the reconstitution of parts of lives and selves that have in some way been deconstituted. Carter Meland's debut novel, Stories for a Lost Child, is certainly such a tale, one that tackles the pain of family and historical losses and the process of slowly finding the languages to speak into the long-standing silences created by that pain in order to re-member one family fractured by history and time. Meland addresses these themes with tenderness, grit, and humor through the story of Fiona MacGowan, a reflective teen about to enter high school who has many questions about herself as a young woman of mixed heritage and about the Indian grandfather her mother refuses to talk about.
The novel opens with the arrival of an unexpected package of stories and letters addressed to Fiona from a man she doesn't know named Jimmy. Fiona's goofily endearing friend, Strep, expresses disappointment with the contents of the package, saying, "It's nothing but paper, Fee. … And they're all just covered in writing" (3). Strep had hoped the package would contain "something useful" like "[g]ifts, candy, a video game" (3). Through Strep's comments on the novel's first page, Meland teases us about the irony of how valuable this package will end up being to Fiona because of the power of storytelling in print to remake pieces of lost worlds, to patch emotional potholes, and to perhaps answer at least some of Fiona's most lingering questions about who she is.
The stories Fiona receives were written by her mysterious Anishinaabe grandfather, Robinson, the very person Fiona's mother has stubbornly refused to discuss. "If I ask about him," Fiona explains to Strep, "just about all she ever says is, 'Your grandma and I were better off without him'" (5). Fiona's anger and frustration around her mom's dismissal of her questions about Robinson—which is caused by her mother's own anger and anguish over her father's early abandonment of her and Robinson's beloved wife, Rose—have created tensions between Fiona and her mom. Robinson's package of stories to "the grandchild," as he has dubbed Fiona, becomes the portal through which Fiona is able to gain [End Page 107] a deeper understanding of who her grandfather was, how he caused Fiona's mother pain, and his reasons for acting as he did. The stories guide her from being "[a]n Anishinaabe child with little sense of what it means to be Anishinaabe" (18) to becoming a young woman fully at ease with the teachings of Misaabe, or Bigfoot, who, as Fiona tells Strep and her other male friends, Dane and Chance, "says all we need to know about the world we can find by kneeling at a creek" (110).
Meland organizes the novel into four "parts": "Inside the Box," "Letters and Stories," "Putting Out the Light," and "Opening a Door." Part 2, "Letters and Stories," is the longest section, and it is here that Fiona reads, and we read with her, the variety of stories and letters her grandfather has written for his granddaughter's benefit and for his own peace of mind. "I'm working on this letter because death hears me skittering in the underbrush," Robinson writes to his granddaughter, "and I don't want it to get me before I've told you what you need to know about these stories" (48). The stories gradually reveal to Fiona the potential of writing to communicate what is sometimes too difficult to say out loud to those who most need the information. To underscore this point, the stories Robinson has written are told in a myriad of voices and from multiple perspectives, some fictional, some biographical, some other-than-human. These include Robinson's own father, Fiona's great-grandfather Dewey...