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   Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered

Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered
by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Category: Fiction / Autobiography
144 pages; ISBN: 1591295505

Rating: 10/10  (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Kristin Johnson


More Than One Way to Tell a Story

Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s second book Harkening, “a collection of 19 gentle sequels” to her debut award-winning novel This Is The Place, won the Excellence in Writing Award from, and one of the stories won the Red Sky Press Award. If the story was up against the other 18 in this collection, the judges must have felt like they were deciding the 2000 Presidential Election. How do you choose among 19 rough-edged yet softly glowing polished gems?

Each story is a slice of reality transformed, from the introduction (which muses on those family stories that change as Uncle Bob or Grandma Edith grows older) to “The Way” (a vignette about families discussing directions that stands as a metaphor for roads to truth) to “A Different Generation” (a bittersweet story that is subtly feminist yet affirms the value of our moms staying home to raise us). The stories are not only ‘fact distilled into truth,’ but shaped into truer than truth stories told at family reunions. The stories remind the reader of conversations in a crowded room at Mom and Dad’s 50th anniversary, with cousins, uncles, aunts, and children talking over each other in order to be heard. Even within each family member, the voices vary and contradict. The representative of the youngest generation, Carrie, abandons piano lessons because her Gram says she “has the least talent but seems to enjoy [the piano] the most.” Yet in the last story, she has accepted her indifference toward cooking, and shows her Mom-Bertie that there is, indeed, more than one way to live. The beauty of Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s writing is not only in the exquisite lace-doily language (“Bertie and Harriet are not only of different religions but made of different textiles. Harriet is a burlap throw…Bertie is fuschia chintz”) but in the characterizations. In the end, Carrie realizes the value of her mother’s old-fashioned crafts, and the traditions that have defined her childhood in Utah.

Those who enjoy ‘straight’ stories with obvious but well-crafted conflict, climax and resolution may feel frustrated by the author’s snapshots of the deeply personal worlds of her characters. But the stories have quiet conflict, such as “What Isn’t Lavender,” a moving but not overdone story of Carrie the outsider cornered by an overzealous classmate. As science fiction writer Ben Bova notes in The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells, “Slam-bang action is not conflict.” Neither are soap opera-ish devices, and the writing here is anything but shallow.

Venice, Carrie, Louella, Trisha, Mom-Bertie, and Nina remind us of paintings by Edna Hibel, everyday moments celebrated. This dysfunctional family becomes dignified, especially in the women’s devotion to their many secrets and to their tangled ties. Like Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, the stories jump from one family member to the other, forcing you to keep up with who is related to whom and whether or not what they reveal in one particular moment contradicts what they reveal in the next story. But this is the nature of families and of great characters. They are little bundles of contradictions, to borrow a phrase from Anne Frank.

In the television show “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” a young seemingly wide-eyed character named Doctor Julian Bashir asks his older, more mysterious alien friend Garak, “What I want to know is, out of all the stories you told me which ones were true and which ones weren't?” Garak answers, “My dear doctor...they're all true.” “Even the lies?” “Especially the lies.”

This dialogue seems to express thematically the point Carolyn Howard-Johnson makes in the introduction: “There are certain exigencies required to mold a tale into something you, my reader, will want to read. I might change the order of an event or the color of a dress to fit the need of the story. The writing of it might require me to imagine another’s point of view in order to capture the story’s full truth.” Also, as she writes of “Legacy,” her Mom-Bertie’s quintessential story, “Still, it is a real story, as most stories come filtered through glasses of one color or another.”

There is a discussion between a younger Bertie and her sister Trisha that even challenges the veracity of a photograph, “Portrait of Sisters.” In this collection of stories remembered, truth of memory has primacy, and even if the road ahead looks straight and flat and winding through Gunnison, there’s still more than one way to get to Salt Lake City. In Carolyn-Howard Johnson’s stories, you discover it’s the journey that matters, and you enjoy every minute.

Kristin Johnson is an award-winning writer who maintains her own Web site, Her book, Christmas Cookies Are For Giving, available in stores September 2003, is available for pre-order from Tyr Publishing, Contact her at


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