In her first novel, Hezada, I Miss You, Erin Pringle picks up on themes explored in her two short story collections, in particular the second book, The Whole World at Once, and investigates them in a more sustained and thoughtful manner.
A small town in the American Midwest struggles to survive. Half the stores in town have gone out of business, people have to drive to a distant mall to purchase many of the basics, and the dropping population of children means those that do live there have to travel to the next town over to go to school. Various initiatives proposed by the village council to boost visitor numbers and encourage inhabitants to stay all come to nothing. Research into what other towns do to survive leaves them despondent.
The ones that seemed to thrive resembled ceramic Christmas villages on fuzzy white felt, with their pleasant lighting, stores of organic vegetables, few but friendly taverns all named TAVERN, a shop selling wind chimes, windsocks, full-price hardback children’s books, and wire racks of postcards featuring historic pictures of the village.
The one ray of sunshine in the year’s calendar, however, is a travelling circus that lands in the town as its last stop on a circuit that takes in a large chunk of the Midwest. It’s a century-long tradition that the town’s inhabitants set great store by and Pringle examines the powerful links between the town and the circus through the stories of several characters.
Frank, a circus performer now too old to play a part in the attractions and acts, hauls the circus tents and equipment between the towns and helps with set-up and breakdown, ticket sales, etc. He dreams of the glory days when the circus had a full band, and a much larger number of animals and performers. Gradually, over the years, cuts have had to be made, and the circus is a shadow of its former self, mirroring the fortunes of the town.
Even if a circus still did travel the entire country, it would look like this one. Fewer everything. One elephant. One or two tightrope walkers. A handful of acrobats. A quartet of clowns. One tattooed woman.
Kae works in the town’s thrift store and her friends – more acquaintances than friends – work in the diner, where she used to work before she had twins, Heza and Abe. The one person she could call a friend is away at college. She wonders at how her life could have taken a different turn if a near deadly encounter with a circus ‘Summer Boy’ had never happened or happened differently
If Kae hadn’t applied at the diner-
Or if it hadn’t been her shift-
Or it was her shift, sure, and so she was waiting outside the diner when the red truck killed her-
Or didn’t kill her-
Or if she worked at the diner, nearly her shift, she stood on the sidewalk, but she took off that yellow dress? Right there, unbuttoning the three pearl buttons, lifting it above her hips, over her head, just like she often imagined doing in the middle of church – how everyone would gasp and faint while her mother covered her with the church bulletin and rushed her from the sanctuary-
We also see the town and the circus through the eyes of Kae’s twins, people working at the diner, customers at the thrift store, and several of the circus workers and performers, including Hezada, a former trapeze artist, whose battle with cancer has rendered her unable to be a part of the show anymore.
We think we know where we are with regard to the town and the circus until an event halfway through the novel suddenly throws everything into sharp relief and the ache of unfulfilled lives turns to a grief of a more severe nature as people search for answers to how such a thing could have happened. The struggle for understanding is the struggle to find ways to accommodate the different levels of grief into everyday life, surprisingly easy for some, impossible for others. And in the background is the continued slow death of the town and the circus, while spectators and performers alike look to show time at the circus for a lifeline, a brief enough interval that forms a centre to their lives.
Everyone waits along the road as we raise the tents. They wait for us to flick on the lights around the ticket booth, the ticket sellers to flip up the blinds and lean forward so you can buy tickets to the first show before it’s sold out, but it’s always sold out, so you buy tickets for the second, third, fourth show, the whole second day of shows because it’s only once a year, the circus, so you buy all the shows, every day of shows, ready to get sick on shows and candy and women unlike the women you know because they’re painted, in sequins, up high above everyone, bare feet, bare legs. You haven’t waited just hours for the circus, you’ve waited all fall, all winter, every spring day, hour, second since your life ended when the circus left last summer. Your whole life has been waiting to begin again, and all it takes is a ticket.
At once a hymn to a quality of life that has long since passed and a realisation of today’s harsh realities, Hezada! I Miss You is ultimately a cry against the sublimation of small town America and its values to a soulless and increasingly commercialised America.