When I was a child, my family moved around a lot, following my father to whatever engineering project he was tackling next. It was hard to feel at home anywhere so it was my family that comprised my understanding of home. When I was trying to acclimate to a new school or set of acquaintances, I would hold on to two memories–my normally very serious father taking his shoes off, rolling up his pants and climbing a palm tree to pick coconuts for us in Haiti one summer and my mother always waiting for us to get home from school and then actually hanging out with my brothers and I like we were interesting little companions when we were, most assuredly, not.
I thought about what these memories represent for me, a sense of home, a natural habitat, an imperfect perfect place where I belong, when I read Michelle Reale’s moving and formidable Natural Habitat. Her chapbook is not just a tight collection of short short stories, it is also a love letter—a love letter to the idea of home, to natural habitats as those places where we can feel most like ourselves, where we can recognize all the people, memories and moments that have contributed to our present selves.
Generally, I don’t believe writers need to explain their work. I prefer the writing to speak for itself but Reale has made a very convincing case for an author’s statement being precisely what a collection needs to become what it should be. The strongest piece in a collection of exceptionally strong work is the opening essay, “What I Left Behind, What I found There,” where Reale intimately discusses the natural habitat of her childhood, the predominantly Italian-American neighborhood where she was raised, a place that influenced her so profoundly that, “Never had I identified with a place as much since. I suspect, at this point, I never will.” Reale goes on to explain how she has revisited that neighborhood; how she has “excavated” and spent time in the home of childhood friends; how she has written amidst the geography of her memories. The result of her efforts is a collection of twelve elegant stories that capture the idea of natural habitats and how we do or don’t fit within the place(s) we call home.
There’s a lot to admire in each of the stories. I was particularly impressed by the subtlety of these stories whose impact built slowly but steadily. In “Bonding,” we are offered a portrait of a family dinner at a neighborhood restaurant. The story is simple but the details Reale shares so perfectly capture the essence of this family, how they interact with one another, the histories that go unspoken.
My father could not eat a meal that was anything less than scalding hot. He sent it back. Twice. When it returned, it was placed before him, but we were more than halfway done with our meals, the table looking like a battlefield of a spilt soda, cigarette ash, and crumpled napkins.
While I enjoyed every story, the standout for me was “Junk,” a story filled with painful implications about a young girl and her relationship with her Uncle Jimmy. Every single line in this story contains an uncomfortable subtext. This is one of those rare stories where the less truly is more. One perfect moment:
My jean shorts cut into my chubby thighs. My “Cutie Pie” t-shirt showed my bra. Uncle Jimmy noticed.
and, after the narrator moves away from her uncle after a tense standoff, and then cuts herself, Reale writes:
Uncle Jimmy laughed hard, his thick yellow tongue vibrated. My father moved away from him, but not toward me. “Clumsy kid you got there,” he said, likt it was all he knew about me.
Go here to order this lovely chapbook and experience the honesty and intimacy of Michelle Reale’s writing. This emotional work will undoubtedly evoke within you a nostalgia for your own natural habitat.