One Story: Prairie Fire, 1899 – Mike Alberti

2 out of 5

On those rare instances that my dad has tried to relate to me some historical factoid from one of the lengthy non-fiction civil war or whatever tomes he’d often lug around, I’d vaguely appreciate the preoccupation with the sort of history-don’t-give-a-fuck point of view retrospect allows us when studying past man’s follies, or the hero worship of men and women of eras that seemingly demanded different, possibly enviable, qualities of their time-bound fodder, but that’s the abstract; history-ers tend to get bogged down in factual minutiae and I just can’t ride that train.

We must document and review and yadda yadda, and I catalogue my CDs and alphabetize my comics occasionally by author, so I’m bogged down in my own details and can’t we all just get along.  It’s a mental debate I go back and forth on: Knowing whom begat whom can’t possibly be as relevant as why whom may have begatted whom, but to give context to the latter I guess we should know the former, so it’s a good thing that there are people who are just as fascinated with the nuts and bolts as there are those with the nitty gritty.  (No, I don’t know which is which.)

But being a ‘why’ guy – whom admittedly struggles to not roll his eyes at whatever non-fiction Mr. or Ms. McBoring is slinging – means it’s difficult for me to remain objective about stories like Prairie Fire, 1899, which I would consider, like, embellished history.

Maybe this telling of a town besieged by the eponymous fire is based on a real event, maybe not, but its paced proceedance through its town occupants, their jobs, their response to events, reads to my like a textbook chapter, albeit written by someone with a flair for the occasionally striking image or phrase.  In trying to tamp down my bias, writer Mike Alberti’s approach is my focus: that the event depicted is, seemingly, intended to be somewhat revelatory for the townspeople in terms of the ephemeral state of life versus nature doesn’t impact me much by story’s end suggests the work failed in its goal.  And so why did it fail?: as the story mostly consists of drifting from occupant to occupant, mention their name of a snapshot of their lifestyle, their response to the fire, before moving on, that can he the only answer: that, for me, it did not form a connection with the people whose lives are changed, and so the change has no effect.

On a more micro level, I think I was also cast adrift by a lack of place; it’s a small town and yet I struggled with the geography of it.  I think there was a bit of a reliance on suggestive imagery (i.e. this is what a small town looks like, so I don’t have to describe it), which I can’t necessarily fault in a short story, but that means both character and setting felt short-changed.

With that giganto chunk of criticism unloaded, I would say that the quality of the writing is quite above average.  The story construction is what’s questionable, but Alberti’s particular phrasings and sentence construction are often quite grabbing, with some singularly impressive lines along the way that illustrated a moment so arrestingly as to make the discrepancy with the rest of the text’s dryness more apparent.  And the bit with the rabbits is a good example of a great historical factoid to sprinkle into something like this.

But: I only read fiction and watch a lot of cartoons.  So maybe when you put down your Lincoln biography to read this, you’ll find it infinitely more rewarding and involving.  Write yer own review.