Peg Alford Pursell’s second book, A Girl Goes into the Forest, is a collection of 78 brief fictions. Centering on the relentlessness of being female, these flash pieces vary in length from a single paragraph to a few pages. Pursell’s writing, lyric and compressed, delivers stories best read in stages, so as not to miss a single note. There’s a lot of urgency packed into these small spaces.
Given this moment in time, the abrupt fissure in the supposedly forward trajectory for women, it is critical to acknowledge, or maybe scream, that being female can be traumatic and wonderful and scary and empowering, but also so, so much work. To be clear, the “girl” of these stories isn’t chasing after a wayward man. She is building herself and figuring how to be a woman in this world, a thing that should be getting easier, but arguably isn’t. Pursell writes girls the way they need to be seen. They are searching, fraught, even lost, but they are also insightful, whip-smart, and do not have the time for your condescension, because they are busy dealing with the storms life has delivered upon them. Neither sentimental nor overtly political, these stories, while lyrical, land so close to the bone, they hurt.
As with her first book, Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow (WTAW Press, 2017, 2nd Ed.), the stories work as single pieces, gaining heft when accumulated. The striking difference is that where the first collection works as an evidence file documenting what it means to move through life as a woman, A Girl Goes into the Woods delves deeper, expanding dimensionally. Here, Pursell comes at the condition of being female from all angles: girls becoming women, girls who believe they are already women, mothering, daughtering, girls fleeing their mothers, and, by implication, the damage men do. In conversation, the stories prove what it takes to be a girl, to raise a woman, and finally, to be a woman at the latter edge of her life.
The shorter stories, lean and muscular, feel the most rewarding. Here, I’ll credit Pursell’s mastery of the flash form and perhaps my own preference and admiration for a skillful wallop. These stories live in the apex of their characters’ troubles, leaving the reader amped and worried. No gentle slide to resolution here, which echoes the never-ending untidiness of being a girl in the world. Most characters are unnamed and locations only alluded to, a strategy that leaves room for interpretation. This allows the reader to find a continuum, particularly in the earlier stories about mother-daughter relationships.
“Magician’s Assistant,” at a tidy three paragraphs, opens to a single scene of a daughter cutting paper and leaving scraps, incurring the wrath of her mother. The narrative projects forward, “She was talented. She could be the lady in the box in the magic show, all glitter, and smiling…”. Then the story slings forward to the girl’s true desire, not for the spectacle, but for the vanishing, “the magician closed the lid on her and sawed through the wood, the audience fearful and then gasping when the man reopened the box to show that she had disappeared.” This, like many of these stories hinges at the end, and like a poem, looks back at itself and shifts, showing us the character’s true desire.
In “Camera Obscura,” a one-paragraph piece, a mother accompanies her daughter to a hearing where the younger woman’s husband is ordered to prison. “How long since her girl had been touched in comfort?” Still, all is not made safe by the husband’s removal. “The tide would come rushing back in. Spindrift hidden under the fog. Unseen creatures on their silent feet, doing what they must.” The mother’s despair is not specifically named, yet with the above lines as the ending, we see that this moment is part of a desperate and never-ending cycle.
A Girl Goes into the Forest is subdivided into sections modeled after Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. In that tale, first published in 1844, the female protagonist goes on a mission because a boy has wandered off. He is in danger, and his mathly inclinations are somehow, in part, to blame. She may be shoeless, but he is distracted. She risks everything for love while he bumbles along, counting things or whatever men doing when they aren’t reading maps correctly. Along the way, she is aided by women. Women of age and wisdom, often of the types that society can no longer see. She thinks the quest is for him, but in truth it is for her. When they finally make it back home, they are adults. It should be no surprise that she has risked more on this quest and yet, she, not once (at least in my translation) is treated as a hero.
Fairy tales are not omnipresent in this collection, rather, they are briefly alluded to. “Baby Bird,” shows a young girl, barefoot, rushing out in search and features the shattered glass of The Snow Queen. The question of the story, “What’s a home anyway?” remains unanswerable, as the girl searches for a baby bird, leaving tiny bloodied footprints. The story has elements that could veer towards something twee, but evokes despair and the sense that the only hope for salvation is escape.
I couldn’t help but think of these lines from Tender Points by Amy Berkowitz (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015): “Some story about a girl detective, not about a girl waylaid in the woods.
But to solve this kind of mystery, it seems, you need to walk alone in a forest. You need to walk until you meet a wolf.” No surprise when these wolves are men. Here, Pursell wisely centers on the women, the men relegated to incidental roles.
In “A Man with Horses,” the narrator takes her daughter to a seaside vacation. The daughter is “on the verge of making her own way in the world,” or so thinks the narrator. Meanwhile, the girl has become secretly married to a man and they are moving to Chile. “His enormous furred hand” is the only allusion to tale. The story snaps back to brutal true-life, “Certain men are glad to find certain girls. The more unbreakable the girl, the better.” Pursell nails the moment when the mother sees that she created both the girl and the recklessness.
One of the longer stories, “You Can Do Anything” does feature a male narrator. Attuned to the female narrators in the collection, it took me a minute to get acclimated. This story with its named characters, multiple scenes and gentle humor stood out from the other more lyrical stories. It’s one of my favorites, yet I’m not positive it suits the collection. Conversely, “A House on the Market” and “Our Losses” portray the male POV in a way that feels aligned with the rest of the book: an unnamed primary character, extreme compression, lyricism, and, as Pursell does so well, final dismounts that totally stick their landings, yet are open enough to leave the reader worried.
Later in the book, the stories, lovely in their brutal realism, hint at escape and salvation (“Hole in the Ice”), loss (“Starflower [I Want Her Back],” “After Math,” and “Exposed”) and aging towards death (“Tangled Cords and Nesting Dolls” and “Keeping”). These pieces, many quite brief, bring unity to those that came before. Things get final, but never tidy. In “Keeping,” a woman who has finally found satisfaction in her aloneness, falls. Time stops, rushes forward and back, with images of her lost daughter noted parenthetically. She is utterly alone, a thing that was not a problem moments before. “No one cares about a character like that. Especially not a woman—a woman can no longer afford to be anything less than the heroine of her own story.” Indeed.