How Winter Began – by Joy Castro

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This is a luminous short story collection by the author of the outstanding Island of Bones. This latest work is every bit as dark as that earlier one, which took as its themes violence and oppression both physical and psychological. So here’s the deal: if you want delicate, middle-class, slice-of-life vignettes, don’t come near this book. It reeks of blood, of poverty, of Latinas scrapping and brawling and finding hope in the detritus of their lives.

This is underdog territory. In the first story, an impoverished food worker jumps into a river on a hundred dollar wager made by her revolting clients. It’s an act that captures in microcosm the whole book: people on the margins sticking a middle finger up at the mostly white male monsters that dominate their world.

Another story, “Musing”, begins

“No one here needs to know why I shoved a Papermate Flexigrip Ultrafine pen into my palm until its plastic casing snapped and blue ink ran in streams with my blood.”

The story is about a Creative Writing student whose professor at one point implores, “Specificity!” Could there be a more specific opening sentence in the history of literature? Amazingly, the story somehow gets even better.

Best of all is “Independence Day,” based on an episode that took place during the California Gold Rush: a Mexican woman stabbed to death a white, racist fortune-seeker who had broken down her door and insulted her. As a portrait of defiance in the face of injustice, it could hardly be bettered, and the last line will leave you speechless.

If I had to use one word to describe this collection, it would be “fierce.” Time and again, the characters rise up and do battle against their own devastating predicaments. Motifs recur throughout the collection: the cleansing and obliterating power of water, the hangman’s noose, and the bitter taste of betrayal.

Above all, the writing is flawless. If an angel fell to Earth and landed on a patch of Nowhere in Twenty-First Century America, mouth full of dust, skin scraped raw, this is the book she would write.

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