Book Review: They Kept Running

Michelle Ross’s latest collection of flash fiction, They Kept Running, is the 2022 winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for short fiction. It’s also a bruise of a book, bleeding beneath its tender skin, painful and strangely beautiful.

Ross arranges her fifty-seven stories into three sections, each loosely keyed to a different stage in women’s lives: childhood, adolescence, adulthood. Her female protagonists wonder and wander, hide, seethe, and eat soup. Some are cautious, some impulsive, but they all do terrifying things like exist as girls and women.

Being female is like operating with a wonky binary code. We may have infinite choices in how we present ourselves and conduct ourselves, but in the end, men read the same output regardless. (from “Binary Code”)

These are everyday moments and fables with a generous dash of speculative horror. In “Killer Tomatoes,” thirteen-year-old Lindsey squelches her nagging fears to go out with a friend and a man who is definitely not her uncle. As she observes him in the red light on the porch, she muses, “I can’t know for certain what will happen, but I’m learning to anticipate the unthinkable.”

Me, too, Lindsey. And while there’s a wolf, mountain lions, and sharks’ teeth, the scariest creatures in this book are decidedly human. Indeed, most of the men breathing in these pages are creeps at best, lurking and leering. They are hostage-takers; they are knives and liars. Here’s the thing, though. Don’t trust anyone. Siblings, best friends, neighbors, the optometrist—anyone might suck you dry or poke a finger in your eye.

As I glance at Ross’s book sitting next to me, I realize: its cover should have been warning enough. Do we really know the wild creatures who befriend us? Hold us? Raise us? The ones we trust and cling to—they are, like us, just animals beneath their shirts and shoes.

The girl first glimpses her mother’s second face when they are eating snow cones in the car, the windows rolled down, the girl’s skin gritty and sticky. Two other girls, their hair in braids, walk past, and the girl’s mother calls out, “Hey there. Want to get in the car and be my little girls?” She cackles. Her eyes are wild, her lips cherry red. (from “Accomplice or Hostage”)

Once we’ve surrendered the idea of trusting others, Ross pushes us further: What else can we live without? Can we let go of acceptance? Being seen? Or, like Phineas Gage and Great Aunt Sarah, a portion of our brains? As evidenced by a title like “Accomplice or Hostage,” by Lindsey’s actions in “Killer Tomatoes,” part of what makes these stories so unsettling is each character’s uncomfortable participation in her own trajectory. They can’t even trust themselves. Can we?

I wonder, what would a man’s experience of this collection be like? I don’t know. As a woman—specifically a middle-aged mother of two girls—these stories prod me to contemplate the roles I play and those I’ve played in the past. The decisions I’ve made: in whose interest were they? How can I un-live some of those painful, shameful moments: the times I let myself and others down, the times I forgot or squandered my own power and quietly accepted the consequences?

These are difficult stories that prompt difficult thoughts. And yet, they are so delectably constructed and unfolded. They are fairy horror tales, dangerous and bewitching. As one character says in awe of the “Barrel Cactus,” so I would say about the stories in this collection: “I like their armor. Their prickliness makes them beautiful.”

Ross’s characters, They Kept Running.

I know why. Still, I kept reading.

Michelle Ross is the author of three story collections: There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award; Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award (2021); and They Kept Running, winner of the 2021 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (2022). Her work is included in Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, the Wigleaf Top 50, Flash Fiction America, and other anthologies. It received special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review.

Beret Olsen is a writer, artist, and part-time insomniac, as well as the photo editor for 100 Word Story. She lives in San Francisco with three beloved humans, a twelve-year-old goldfish, and a trash-eating, bed-hogging rat-killer named Millie.

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