We by Laura S. Distelheim
Publisher: Goldline Press
Reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin
We is a book about wanting. Wanting to live a safe, normal, everyday life. It is about people who live just outside the range of vision of too many Americans, invisible in plain sight every day.
The story opens with a black van taking a freeway exit into a suburb somewhere in the Midwest. The side of the van reads Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The appearance of this van, as Laura S. Distelheim has structured her book, is the “call” and the rest of the book – a series of interconnected short stories – the “response” of a blues ballad. The response echoes through the lives of people terrified by the appearance of the ICE van in their community. They stay home rather than go to work or school. The response reverberates further through the lives of people oblivious to the van, whose wants are disrupted when their students, bakers, painters and balloon blowers disappear.
We is a short chapbook. In less than 50 pages Distelheim gives an intimate view inside the lives of people who live on a knife edge. We see their apartments and their schools; we see the children they keep close and the children they left back home. We feel their want, their hopes and their fear:
“…it’s easier to feel anger than it is to feel fear, which she can’t ever seem to figure out how to live with all the time, the way it ties her heart into a knot and makes her feel like there’s a wild animal trapped inside her rib cage.”
The premise of We is reminiscent of Sergio Arau’s 2004 film, A Day Without a Mexican. Where Arau used satire to show how undocumented migrants are inextricably interwoven into America’s economic and social fabric, Distelheim uses pathos. Her stories of the immigrants themselves are the most compelling; some are absolutely heartbreaking. A frightened mother shouts at her little boy for making too much noise, then tries to coax him out of his terrified corner. A young man fills his long day in hiding doing repairs around the garage he lives in with his mother because he can’t go to the library to look up whether he’s been accepted to college.
Chapbooks are a terrific alternative to social media. They’re small and lightweight enough to slip into a bag or even a pocket. They’re a great length for reading in line at the coffee shop or while waiting for friends. They’re perfect for a bus or train ride home. The best ones, like We, are tightly written and pack a powerful punch. As you finish this book, take a moment to ask yourself, who are “we?”
Bronwyn Mauldin is the author of the novel Love Songs of the Revolution and quite a few short stories. She's also creator of The Democracy Series zine collection. More at bronwynmauldin.com.