This past year has been one of the strangest of my life, and I suspect that almost every human on the planet would say the same. The pandemic has brought us all into new and dramatically changed worlds, which are often, unsettlingly, our most familiar spaces: our homes, neighborhoods, city centers. The ten novel openings featured in this issue of Embark, though they were chosen without relation to each other, all touch on themes of isolation and adventure in strange worlds—worlds that are sometimes hostile, sometimes enchanting, often unknown but many times familiar. They resonated with me, and I believe that no reader will feel entirely disconnected from their stories.
Sometimes our own hometowns contain the greatest dangers. William F. Polsgrove, in A HISTORY OF STARLIGHT, describes the plight of fifteen-year-old Jesse Collins, bookish and bisexual, facing the brutality of rival gangs in his Tennessee town in the 1970s. For Jesse, the town where he was born remains strange and unwelcoming, a place he must escape from but will never entirely leave behind. For Nell O’Connor, the protagonist of Virginia Ryan’s CLADDAGH GIRL, an equally violent hostility pervades her own house after her father dies in 1904 and her predatory uncle arrives to take his place. Nell must travel all the way from Ireland to America to find a new world for herself where she can feel truly at home.
The sites of our childhoods frequently contain secrets and nightmares, but they can provide memories of safety too. R. Bratten Weiss, in THE DIRT, tells the story of a philosophy professor who retreats to her long-abandoned hometown in Ohio to work as an organic grower, after recklessly self-publishing a memoir that makes her job unbearable. Her return will bring reconnections and revelations, fears and hopes both new and old. The protagonist of Susan Marsh’s EYE OF THE MOUNTAIN similarly finds a new future while revisiting her past, when she inherits her grandfather’s cabin in Wyoming and decides to stay there, helping a team of scientists in the Red Desert, rather than go back to college. Her rediscovery of the cabin she knew as a child is redolent with future potential and old mysteries.
Difficult though it can be to revisit the past, it’s even more heartbreaking when we want to go back to it but can’t. In MEMORIES OF TOMORROW, Sucharita Dutta-Asane brings to life a woman traumatized by her husband’s gruesome murder in Ambuda, India. Desperate to piece together the elements of the tragedy that unraveled her life, Urmila drifts between past and present, mentally returning again and again to the home where she lost everything. Wendy E. Burton, in MILLICENT, also focuses on a widow, this one living in London in the 1850s. Impoverished and illiterate, Millicent and her many sons face the dual threats of starvation and the poorhouse after her husband dies of cancer. Striving to keep her children fed, she hunts for old clothes to sell and clings to her memories, the only place where she still feels at home.
Sometimes a new world is heralded by an unexpected arrival. In MODANIS, by Yaron Regev, a mysterious child appears on the doorstep of a grieving couple, Benjamin and Sarah Mendel, who have lost their son. No sooner do they welcome him in than a sinister agent appears, eager to take him away by force. These events catapult Benjamin and Sarah into an alarming and fantastical realm that will eventually help to bring them out of their grief. Daniel Gabriel, in DANCE TO KEEP FROM CRYING, also opens with an unexpected meeting. His protagonist is a jaded hustler, one who has traveled to all ports and found nothing to hold onto, yet even he lands in unfamiliar territory—a setting haunted by his past—when he returns to LA from Mexico and encounters two high-school classmates within a day.
New worlds, whether they’re on the other side of the globe or in the houses we grew up in, can be overwhelming and upsetting. But every so often they provide seemingly boundless promise, and two of the openings in this issue dive into the thrill of anticipation. Neither is without danger, particularly STREET by A. D. Metcalfe: in this opening, twelve-year-old Johnny Álvarez is running away from horrific abuse in Miami. He is a child alone, and his prospects are hardly rosy, yet he feels so relieved when he escapes on a Greyhound bus, and so fearless and determined when he enters the gritty New York City of the 1970s, that we can’t help but share his optimism. In PARIS NIGHTS, Gracie Bialecki’s protagonist also has a troubled past, though Harper is in her mid-twenties. Fleeing drug use and unhappiness in New York, she takes up her French grandmother’s offer of a tiny apartment in Paris and immerses herself in a new life there as a writer. Her hope, excitement, and love for the city she has adopted are a vicarious delight.
Whether their worlds are harsh and disturbing or filled with wonder, whether they’re revisiting the past or forging into the future, all of the protagonists in these ten openings show resolution and resilience. They make wonderful company for the long days of quarantine.
— Ursula DeYoung, Founding Editor
Table of Contents
PARIS NIGHTS – Gracie Bialecki
THE DIRT – R. Bratten Weiss
MILLICENT – Wendy E. Burton
MEMORIES OF TOMORROW – Sucharita Dutta-Asane
DANCE TO KEEP FROM CRYING – Daniel Gabriel
EYE OF THE MOUNTAIN – Susan Marsh
STREET – A. D. Metcalfe
A HISTORY OF STARLIGHT – William F. Polsgrove
MODANIS – Yaron Regev
CLADDAGH GIRL – Virginia Ryan