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Queen of the Sugarhouse

     When I was little, we used to sit on the back porch when the Ohio night was clear and watch the stars. "There's the Big Dipper and Little Dipper and North Star," Mama had said.
     Sometimes there were satellites moving through the stars. Sometimes a wolf howled. When I asked Mama if she were frightened of them when she collected maple syrup, she said, " They don't mean us any harm. I trust them more than people."
     Maple sugaring was how we made our living. Spring came and we hung out the wooden buckets during the first spurt of warm weather. There was a clatter as Mama and I removed buckets, one by one, from the sled. Steam rose off the sweating backs of the horses. Nellie nuzzled Fred as if whispering encouragement. Mama stepped between them, adjusting their harness. "You poor slobs," she'd say as their wet hides rippled beneath her hands. Far down the hill, the sugar house appeared and disappeared in mist.
     Mama was always handsome, and proud and belligerent as she bartered jars of maple syrup for a brake job for our truck. Either she came out ahead on a deal, or she took revenge on the closest person around, who was always me. The winter I was sixteen she had an accident and broke her right leg. The limp made her outrageously demanding. "Have you fed the chickens yet? Fetch more wood for the sugarhouse." I used to cry whenever she tried to pull me onto her lap. Her touch could be a licking or a hug; I never knew which to expect. Even a treat, like popcorn or chocolate, could lead to appalling scenes, as if she'd forgotten how to give or receive pleasure. Somewhere during those growing-up years, Mama's bitterness was passed on to me, a family heirloom like the chipped Haviland china, the Star-of-Bethlehem quilt pulling apart at the seams.


Kirkus Reviews Star rating

Studer, the author of Body Language: First of All Do No Harm (2009), explores life in medical institutions from varied perspectives in nine stories.


The collection opens with "Mercy," about an intensive care nurse who administers the wrong drug to a patient; the narrative digs beneath the everyday turmoil of life on the ward to examine the vulnerability of medical staff and how they deal with the trauma of their work in their personal lives. The following story, "Shelter," introduces Benjamin Tyler, a destitute Desert Storm veteran who's being treated for a debilitating illness following his tour of duty, and "The Isolation Room" is about a writer who's committed to a mental institution after cutting her wrist. "Special Needs" follows Maria, a waitress whose brother, who has muscular dystrophy, is institutionalized; when she becomes pregnant, she wonders if she carries the gene that caused her sibling's disease. The title story closes the collection with a poignant tale of a daughter nursing her mother through chemotherapy following a mastectomy. In these stories, Studer, a retired nurse, offers a dazzling and nuanced portrait of the medical world. She's unafraid to depict the horrific but also acutely sensitive to the complexity of the psychology at play in this challenging environment. Her affecting prose allows readers to experience hospital life through the perspectives of patients as well as medical staff. On occasion, the characters' observations can be wistfully poetic, as in "Mercy": "I've seen the signs of imminent death: a blurring of the body's boundaries, a gentle and sometimes not-so-gentle fusion with surrounding elements, a sigh into oblivion." In other instances, the author offers up brutally vivid tableaux, as in "Shift": "The boy's heart floats in a pool of blood like a drowned kitten. The doctor's hands continue to work inside the chest." Studer successfully captures a spectrum of emotion in these tales, including her characters' matter-of-fact approach to death: "It's raining outside. The toddler is very dead."


A brilliant, if harrowing, set of tales featuring sharp prose.

Star Rating