Author Andrew J. Olson, whose work has previously appeared in several journals such as Red Weather and The Monarch Review, grew up in Brandon, MN before receiving his MFA at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Though he now lives in Oklahoma, Olson pays homage to the rural Midwest with Barn Stripping and Other Stories, a collection of eighteen succinctly written and intensely relatable narratives.
Released by Outskirts Press and now available as an e-book with Knuckledown Press, Barn Stripping contains stories ranging in length from one to about ten pages. Some involve everyday scenarios such as farming, hunting, and playing football, while others involve more unusual circumstances, such as a family burying a son during a blizzard or a boy falling from a church balcony during a choir recital.
Some are not stories so much as brief snapshots of country life against the stark and sometimes forbidding backdrop of painfully familiar Minnesota winters. One example is the story “The Sound of Watermelon:” two crisply written pages of a conversation between a husband and wife at the kitchen sink. It’s the shortest stories such as this that are the most memorable: concise, to the point, and powerful in their own understated way.
Through sparse dialogue and subtle characterization, we get to know what’s lurking beneath the surface of the reticent Midwestern exterior among these young farm boys, budding preteens, hardworking college kids, and industrious adults. In the stories that place emphasis on family interactions—primarily between fathers and sons—many of these characters are nameless, only referred to by titles such as “the boy,” “the father,” or “the grandfather,” which highlights the roles they play in their families and communities.
Barn Stripping and Other Stories resonates with Midwest philosophies of resilience, unflinching work ethic, and contribution to one’s community. There is something raw and humanistic about this collection, which undoubtedly depicts a life many local readers are living and a childhood others once knew. But although it transports certain readers to a familiar setting, its themes of familial relationships, the loss of innocence, and adolescent milestones are universal and memorable.
So take a break from your escapes to Hogwarts and Narnia and return to planting potatoes in your backyard and shooting birds with a BB gun. This vicarious trip back home will be worth your while.
This article previously appeared in the High Plains Reader.
– Särah Nour