Is it just me, or do short story collections get the short end of the stick these days? With a love of child and YA novels at an all-time high, you'd think that some of that lovin' would slough off onto the other forms of fantasy out there. The shorter forms. Yet ask your average everyday kid to list their favorite collection of short stories and nine times out of then you'll find yourself facing a very blank look. You can't make the argument that there aren't worthy short story collections out there either, since books like "The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales" crop up every so often without much fanfare or media blitz. Such collections are subtle sly little affairs. They do not demand your attention, knowing full well that if you accidentally happened to stumble into reading one of their tales you'd be utterly unable to extract yourself until you'd swallowed each and every story in the collection whole. That's sort of what happened to me when I was given a copy of this book. As someone whose favorite book as a teen was Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, I'm inclined to enjoy tales of thirty pages or less (which probably explains why I like to review so many picture books). Top that off with the subject matter (tricksters of every age, gender, generation, and stripe) and the author roll (everyone from Holly Black and Michael Cadnum to Ellen Klages and Jane Yolen) and you've got yourself one heckuva book. Use the lack of marketing surrounding its release to your advantage. Consider it your own personal secret and discovery.
Twenty-six tales, some prose and some poems, and all of them intriguing and enticing by turns. And just listen to their content. A deal with the devil takes the form of a competitive eating contest. A spirit decides that it will do everything possible to stop a classroom from diagramming sentences. A boy draws inspiration from Brer Rabbit to outsmart his kidnappers. A girl collects ghosts on ribbons, taking them wherever she goes, feeding them her blood. Each story relates to a trickster character of some sort. Sometimes they are wild spirits of the earth and air. Other times, classic characters like the devil, Hermes, and Raven. The mix of good and bad, unpredictability, self-interest, and good humor weaves in and out of these stories and the sheer variety is perhaps the collection's biggest lure. Both original and traditional, this is a fine and fancy mix of the wildness of spirit lying at the heart of some of the world's best stories.
I'm not saying that you have to know the history and background of trickster tales to enjoy a collection of this sort. I'm just saying that it helps, and for this reason I was particularly taken with both the Preface and the Introduction to this book. In the Preface, the editors skillfully tie-in old trickster tales to new by pointing out that contemporary pop culture is full of such characters. Consider Captain Jack Sparrow from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, after all. As for the Introduction, its encapsulation of the history of collecting trickster tales is engrossing. Worth an entire book right there, it is. This is best summed up by folklorist Robert D. Pelton who said that, "I had not realized that many so-called primitive peoples delighted in celebrating this disruptive power instead of squelching it or using it to launch some dull theory about institutional stress, comic absurdity, or the psychological value of playing around. Moreover, while these people were discovering laughter at the heart of the sacred, they, like so many Flannery O'Connor prophets and profiteers, were insisting that this discovery of laughter revealed the true being of daily life."
If I had to choose my favorite stories in this collection, I'd be hard pressed to say. There really wasn't a story here I felt was "bad" (though a couple might have been out-of-place) and plenty that I found exceptional. I did have a great deal of affection for "Black Rock Blues" which is the only story with an African-American trickster. It's the kind of story where a character is forcibly taken somewhere and asked to leave the car. When he refuses the heavies say, "The kindness is for my compatriot. He must clean the car if a guest is reluctant to leave it." I love that kind of stuff. Ellen Klages taps into our nation's love of board games in a truly original fashion in "Friday Night at St. Celia's", which is fun. The most thought-provoking story, however, is also the last tale in the collection. Editing a book of this size and scope can't be an easy job but there must be certain perks. Getting to decide the order in which the stories appear might be one of them. The idea of making the story, "The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change," the last must have been a bit of a no-brainer, though. In this tale something happens to all the domesticated animals in the world, giving them the power of speech. Author Kij Johnson talks about what happens when pets unnerve us and make us feel forced to abandon them. Amongst the wild dogs of the North Park, the dogs begin to tell stories about One Dog. These are stories that are based around their culture and not the human's culture. The tale, in essence, captures exactly how and why it is that we create tales for one another, providing the perfect capper to this collection.
Some authors had an easier time with the assignment than others. Patricia McKillip's story is good, but I didn't quite see how the main character embodied the trickster aesthetic, aside from just being a person who tricks people. McKillip herself notes in that she found writing about tricksters to be "very difficult". Others slipped into the trickster motif easily. I found the Author's Notes at the end of each tale to be particularly insightful when it came to locating each author's influences. Theodora Goss mentions that her inspiration came, in part, from "that boyfriend you had in high school who was probably in Drama Club and not much else, unless he had a band, and who idolized someone impossible like Jim Morrison or Jack Kerouac, and who tied his hair, dyed black, back in a ponytail, and who was fearfully attractive but, as your mother told you, trouble. Yes, that one."
It's a mix, of course. There are a lot of female tricksters in this collection. Far more than you'll find in folktales and myths, I'd wager. In the Introduction, Terri Windling makes the point that, "Such wily women are rare, however, and seldom do they enjoy the cultural status of their masculine counterparts." Still, it had to have been irresistible. And while some authors know their trickster history and play off of it, others conjure up characters entirely out of their own heads without referencing any one land or person directly. In the end it's a magnificent series of tales, engrossing and engaging by turns. An ideal gift for the person entranced by folklore, the person who loves trickster tales, or just any person who likes a good story once in a while. Recommended for any and for all.