Eclectic, Trashy, and Classy

Mostly Shorts
Arbutus Cunningham

I recently had the good fortune to run into an acquaintance from Southern Indiana. I was in St. Paul for a meeting and saw a promotion for a show featuring storyteller Arbutus Cunningham, so I stayed in town that night to see her.  She was kind enough to gift me her latest CD, Mostly Shorts.  This concludes the full disclosure section of this review and I will now focus my attention on suggesting you pick up this CD for yourself.

If this collection of short stories has any flaw, it is that there is no apparent overarching idea tying them together.  But I have to say that I rather like flitting from the really big rat that winds up in the washing machine to the turbulent marriage between Winter and Summer, then coming back to Indiana for some thirsty pachyderms after settling in for a concert on the great ship Titanic.  At least, that’s the order I most recently got when I put the tracks on shuffle.

Cunningham can ratchet up a scene in short order, such as when a grandmother in “Trashy” takes up her son’s gun to call down the town banker, insisting he make good on her husband’s municipal bonds. “Come on down and take what you got coming to you. You know what you done,” she hollers.  Someone brings her grown son to the scene.  “I am trying to put the fear of God into him,” she tells her child.  He replies evenly, “I feel certain you have accomplished that.” The narrator has already warned that we would be exposed to the place “where trashy meets temerity,” and I was not disappointed.

The king of these stories is “Icarus,” a heartbreaking tale that brings the Greek myth home by demystifying it. No, there were not feathers, she tells us.  Father and son together built a machine that could harness the thermals and glide to the safety of a fisherman’s boat. They used science, same as all the other inventors of the world. I won’t reveal what happens to Icarus, but suffice it to say that the ending is a radical but moving departure from the story we’ve heard. Though to Daedalus and to Icarus it all probably amounted to the same thing. I’m embedding a live performance of the story here, accompanied by songwriter Krista Detor’s own lovely version of the myth. (If you are only interested in Cunningham’s portion, that lasts for about the first five minutes.)

Like most terrific liars, Arbutus never strays too far from actual fact.  If you would like to know about the relationship between Presbyterians and hookworms, or if you want to know why she hates toothbrushes more than snakes, or how the Incas developed the first postal system in the (not yet) Americas, I recommend this collection.  If you don’t want to know about any of these things, I suggest you give a listen anyway because you may well change your mind.


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