‘Migration’ by Dawn Raffel

Dawn Raffel is the Christine Schutt or Diane Williams of twenty years ago, a disciple of Gordon Lish whose only contemporary rival, sentence for sentence, is Gary Lutz. ‘Migration’ is an unsettling story of family tensions in a version of the nineteenth century American frontier:

“This was in the time of the Indian corn tied tight to doors with dry stalks. The doors had mats of husk. Dark jars filled the cellars. … Men were in pursuit.”

Women and girls, meanwhile, are left at home to await whatever might befall them. The story casts glances at two girls in particular (it would be wrong to say that the story is about them) and the girls’ names are abstract nouns which, when spoken, sound like commands to do something. So it is that the girls have words with known meanings affixed to their identities, and when their names are called they can’t be sure if they are being summoned or receiving instruction. Death arrives at the door, new life arrives in the frontier house, and the family takes on a new configuration. By way of these events, those individual words — the girls’ names — acquire startling new significance.

from In the Year of Long Division, Knopf 1994

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