Book Review: We Will Tell You Otherwise

This will be a somewhat unique review in that I know but don’t know the author. Beth Mayer and I attended Lincoln School, a no-longer-extant elementary school in Lombard, Illinois. She and her family lived in Illinois through our junior high years, then they disappeared to the frozen tundra of Minnesota. The magic of Facebook put me back in touch with Beth, and I learned she was an English teacher and writer. Deciding to take the risk (I’m normally a science fiction reader/writer), I bought her book of short stories, We Will Tell You Otherwise. My reactions follow.

First, a word or two about Beth. She was and as far as I can tell remains a sweet, kind person. A tad quiet and shy. And I don’t think I’ll be shocking or embarrassing her or myself to admit that I had a crush on her [X] years ago. I was socially awkward back in the day, and so kindness to people like me rated high as a virtue. Her mom was the school librarian, and I know I pestered her a lot. I appreciated her patience.

All this is to say that the shy and gentle girl of my memory has grown up and is now writing stories in a shy and gentle manner. What do I mean by that? Well, Beth’s characters are often restrained in their curiosity and their responses to people. They aren’t screaming or losing their temper. There are things that they might be interested in knowing, but seldom ask.

The stories themselves are more akin to dramatized anecdotes than movie- or novel-style plots and conflict resolutions. It feels as if we are drifting into these various characters’ private lives, listening in on their personal conversations. There are conflicts and sources of discomfort for the viewpoint characters (sometimes first-person narrated, sometimes first-person limited). The characters’ reactions or internal resolutions to the conflict in the narrative are often implied or left to the reader to guess. There are allusions to dark or violent actions, but those are mostly “offstage.” I found myself wondering where the characters might go from there.

I’d be curious to see Beth’s characters given longer stories and more space to move around–how do they plan to face their challenge(s)? What comes next? I suppose that’s what I mean by shy storytelling. Or maybe coy is a better word. There are conflicts there, often pretty serious ones. How do these literary creations respond to them? Is this understated storytelling the current literary style or is that a Beth thing? I guess I’d like to see Beth write a novel. 🙂

The best story in the collection (my view) is the second to last, from which the book mostly derives its title, “I Will Tell You Otherwise.” There, the reader sees the more traditional tools of setup, confrontation, and resolution. Her characters are very much alive, and if any of the stories in this collection would benefit from a longer treatment, it would be this one. How can you go wrong with a character name like Cha Cha McGee?

So would I recommend the book? Yes. The writing is skillful, engaging, and easy to read. The stories touch on family, friends, relationships, and the conflicts, resentments, and hurts that can arise from them. The characters depicted feel real. I have no idea how much they are based on real people and how much is creative invention, but they are still skillfully rendered, which is not easy to do in these short episodes. The culture, behaviors, norms, and taboos of the characters are distinctly Midwestern in their flavor. I found this a charming reminder of home and a girl I knew long ago.

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