Digital publisher Open Road Integrated Media has reissued in ebook format the classic Melanie Rae Thon works First, Body (originally published by Houghton Mifflin in 1997) and Sweet Hearts (originally published by Houghton Mifflin in 2001). First, Body, a collection of nine short stories, won the 1997 Whiting Writer’s Award and established a number of themes Thon continued to develop in her novel, Sweet Hearts.
Most of the stories in First, Body are written in the first person, as is Sweet Hearts, which uses multiple narrators. Thon eschews straightforward narratives; her plots always meander. Important events often come out in pieces, so that the basic facts of the story may not be clear until the end. And although Sweet Hearts is a novel, it reads very much like a collection of prose poems, each chapter short and lyrical.
Both books focus on lost children: runaways, juvenile delinquents, children gone feral from hardship and loneliness. In Sweet Hearts, 16-year-old Flint Zimmer escapes from the juvenile detention facility where he has spent most of his life. He returns home for his 10-year-old half-sister Cecile, and the two go on a crime spree. This storyline echoes “Nobody’s Daughters,” three linked stories in First, Body, in which a drug-addicted runaway does whatever she can to survive.
One reoccurring motif is for these lost children to break into an affluent home, more for the brief comfort it provides than the valuables they can steal. Flint and Cecile do it, as do the protagonists of the “Xmas, Jamaica Plain” (which appeared in Best American Short Stories 1996). In “Bodies of Water,” we get the flip side of this coin with a woman whose home is burglarized by lost children.
In Thon’s world, childhood is a warzone. The mistakes made by children and their parents leave scars that haunt those children well into adulthood. Thon’s characters cannot escape the past, sometimes even the ancestral past, which is what leads Flint and Cecile on a dark odyssey to the Crow Indian Reservation. Many of Thon’s characters engage in imaginary dialogues with dead loved ones.
These haunted souls live at the intersection of racial boundaries. Love can cross these boundaries, but not without great danger. The narrator of “Little White Sister,” an African-American man, begins his tale with the chilling lines, “Mama warned me, stay from white girls. Once I didn’t.” Thirty years of misery ensue. Intermarriage—or at least interbreeding—between white and Native people occur regularly in these books, but fault lines, ancient and invisible, ensure that no happiness can arise from these unions. In these books, sex is at best a temporary relief from loneliness. More often it is brutal and predatory.
Bodies in Thon’s work are always imperfect. Her characters are either skinny or overweight. An adolescent boy might be leanly muscled or a girl thin, but we know this is only a temporary stop on the way to starvation or obesity. The overweight characters never carry the girth of prosperity; their bodies are always weak and sagging. And everyone carries literal scars along with the metaphorical ones.
Thon excels in finding beauty in pain, although that beauty is hard earned. I found it difficult to read the stories in First, Body straight through. Each one was like a punch in the gut, and I needed time to catch my breath in between them. Sweet Hearts builds more slowly, although no less powerfully, and the short, poetic chapters offer a brisker pace.
Melanie Rae Thon is a master of both the short and long forms of fiction. Each short story in First, Body is a miniature novel, while each chapter of Sweet Hearts packs the punch of a prose poem. Haunting memories and soft impressions blend with gritty reality to guide her tortured characters through life on impoverished borderlands. But there is beauty in all that pain.