By Laura Trunkey
Double Dutch is a confident debut collection of nine stories offering different perspectives on a single theme. That theme is an old if unfamiliar one, at least by the standards of contemporary fiction: the body-soul duality.
In the first story a young single mother thinks that her two-year-old son has been inhabited by the reincarnated soul of a terrorist. We may think her simply mad, but then the toddler does recite Arabic poetry in his sleep.
Next up is another case study in possession, with a man’s wife swapping souls with a bear. This is followed by the title story, which is about a body-double for Ronald “Dutch” Reagan. Again, the conflict between physical appearance and inner identity is brought into play. The material or physical, we are led to believe, is not necessarily the real.
The later stories offer more elegiac turns on the same theme. A gypsy boy is adopted by a Lutheran church and is promoted as the second coming, a role that involves its own mix of human and divine identities. As with the other final stories this one ends with an evocation of death not as something final but as transfiguration, a shuffling off of the mortal coil and subsequent withdrawal to a world of ethereal spirit. “On Crowsnest Mountain” takes us on a search for another missing boy, in the process dissolving the “molecular chorus” of the boy’s body (a mere empty vessel) into a “chorus of the infinite.” Finally, the last story is about a hospice run by a bunch of sisters who can navigate the borderland between life and death, the real world and the spirit world. As their physical husks lie in the family home they are raised a spiritual body: their ethereal selves drawn to a vague land known as “the White” that lies beyond a fence on the edge of property.
That so many of the stories address this subject is by no means a criticism, as it’s a large theme and Trunkey is inventive in breathing new life into it. Indeed, it’s the outliers, two stories that build on historical events – Thomas Edison’s electrocution of an elephant and the killing of a pair of priests in the far North – that are less successful, perhaps for feeling out of place.
One of the more effective and interesting ways Trunkey develops the soul-body theme is by securing the spiritual to a material, physical, natural reality. It’s probably no coincidence that border states are so often associated with natural settings like parks. It’s also significant that several of the stories deal with mothers and their children, as this is both a physical and spiritual bond. The mother in “On Crowsnest Mountain,” for example, still feels connected to her lost son in a way that her realistic husband (arch emphasis in the original) can’t because he “does not feel the heart of his child beating in his gut.” That is, still beating even after that child has gone.
The effect of all of this is to make us feel that reality has a spiritual dimension – a message near to the heart of every storyteller as well as a good part of their art.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, March 2016.