I Wondered What Would Become of Us: Good Women by Halle Hill, reviewed by Linda Michel-Cassidy

Good Women, the debut story collection by Halle Hill, is populated by characters who the reader will know intimately, not because we have seen them before, but because the writer does such a good job of depicting their depth and singularity. In cataloging their difficulties, rather than maligning them, Hill holds them aloft. The author architects an understanding of her characters’ troubles without the use of spectacle or contrivance, and celebrates their successes without treacle or sentimentality. 

In the opening story, “Seeking Arrangements,” Hill drops us in the most troubling of in medias res possibilities—on a Greyhound bus barrelling towards Florida with an older, infirm man she met online. They are heading to visit his mother, to convince her he is alright in his life. (To be sure, he is not.) I was deeply anxious by the end of the first paragraph. The narrator, Krystal, at first charms us in her unreliability and innocence, then straight-up worries us crazy. Her judgement is clouded by adoration and hope, as she stretches her legs and admires her specially painted toes. Krystal has contrived a cheerful naivete in furtherance of her slim hopes that this man could care for her. She knows, yet won’t allow herself to know, that she has aided in her own trouble, “It’s a long way from where I am to the door. How many steps would it take? It’s 10 a.m. I feel my stomach drop.” 

She retraces her steps: the long phone conversations,bthis man, Ron, saying she has “a lot of potential,”their first meeting at Cheesecake factory, the room they got at Days Inn—paid in cash, the way he calls her angel—but also: all the medicine bottles, his unGoogleability, the supposed millions he made back on the early 2000s. In the bus, in the dark, Krystal thinks, “Right now, I can decide it’s over.”

Hill writes the lives of these Black women in Appalachia in a way that feels fresh, unincumbered with overly familiar tropes. She is particularly adept at crafting dialog; the writing is so smooth that it doesn’t feel “writerly,” but rather, that we are in these folks lives, hearing them. Hill sets up scenarios where the reader is a precarious half-step ahead of the protagonists, so that we see the danger as it approaches, unfolding with high-stakes inevitability. 

In “Hungry,” a preteen girl just about to graduate middle school is taken to Weight Watchers, which on its own is alarming, calling up what we know about how girls are taught to feel shame about their bodies at so young an age. Matters are complicated, but also explained, as we learn that her father is in hospital for an amputation because of diabetes-related gout that led to gangrene. Her Aunt Esther, a sort of surrogate mother who has pressed her to lose weight, worries about the inherited tendency, sincere in her concerns for the girl’s future health. The girl sees herself in her father, and is scared for the both of them. The actual mother is cruel and functionally absent, and, as would be expected, other children are vicious. The pressure is coming at this girl from all directions. 

She digs into the challenge, and it is unclear which force dominates: the wish to have the shape the world wants her to have or an actual fear of diabetes. Perhaps she wishes to please the aunt, who does seem to have the girl’s health in mind. The diet becomes an obsession fueled by agency and control, things which the girl did not have before. “Everything was about willpower. My wants were just an illusion to be managed. (...) I needed to trick my mind. You gotta know when you are hungry and when you just think you are.” Over the summer the narrator winnows, while her father becomes sicker, and eventually he is practically immobile. The mother, oblivious, continues an affair with blonde Ms Glenda from down the street. The narrator excercizes compulsively and exchanges diet tips with a friend who was likely bulemic, “I was obsessed with disappearing.” The daughter shrinks while the father’s limbs swell.

The collection’s title is charged with potential meanings. What does “good” mean and to whom? This is the trick of the question of “goodness”—who gets to make that assessment and through what lens? Who is most often charged with the maintenance of  this “goodness”? (Hint: it’s the women). How much time and effort to we surrender to the performance of behaving well? Sadly enough, the self is often left out of the equation. Hill investigates the tension between being what others want for and demand of us against what what we need for ourselves. As daughters, mothers, sisters, aunt, this problem is heightened, as we feel pulled in so many directions. We see how much is lost in succumbing to the powers others hold, and how much can be gained through acts of self-preservation. The dicotomy is made even more challenging when the stakes are raised, as they are in these stories, the characters placed in scenarios that are so stacked against them, where every choice looks like the wrong choice.

The narrator in “Skin Hunger” is being pressured by her husband, their friend group, and his family, to have a baby. Shauna is not so sure that this is what she even wants, finding herself surrounded by strivers masked as a socially-prestigious religious study group. She worries that her husband, John, who is white, has a questionable relationship with race, and that she is not sure about having a baby with him, “I coudn’t stop thinking about who he was, what he thought of me, why he’d married me, and why I married him.” Shauna finds she is on a very specific track to some version of “success,” a course that is becoming increasingly claustrophobic. 

Shauna is not getting pregnant because she is on birth control, a fact she conceals from John. He is mystified and anxious, and to make matters worse, his sister and her husband have adopted two sisters from Botswana, who they treat as little trophies. Subtle and not-so-subtle racism abounds, coming from their friends and his family. Shauna decides to go out of town for a week, for a sort of rural timeout and a visit with her sister. Away from home, she can act for herself. If she is reckless, at least she can say it’s her own doing. 

Hill deftly interrogates institutions such as Christian bible study groups, pay-to-play colleges, and missionary work. She confronts bigotry and small mindedness, fililial duty and the impetus to escape from home, yet the stories never preach, nor do they tell the reader what to think. Instead, these issues are entwined with the lives of characters who are so well-crafted and multi-dimensional that we understand the decisions they make, even—maybe especially, when they act against what would be assumed to be their best interests. These aren’t stories of redemption, as no one needs saving. Once the characters see themselves and figure out how to be good for their own sake, they can attend to their own needs. 

In the collection’s closing story, “How to Cut and Quarter,” the narrator, Marjorie, returns home for her Seventh-day Adventist pastor father’s funeral and to settle his estate. She crafts a homecoming self, “I shaved my legs, relaxed my halo, and practiced sitting tall (...) I packed my bag, making sure to leave anything adorning at home. (...) to show up and be welcomed, I couldn’t appear prideful.” Marjorie wrestles with her memories of her father, and how he was so reserved at home, yet so vibrant as a preacher. She struggled so hard as a child to understand her father, to get closer to him, to steal crumbs of his attention. “His eyes were fixed on glory, while I wanted him to see me while he was in the flesh.” She mourns the missed opportunity for them to truly know each other—even if, in reality, that sort of communion would have been impossible. Marjorie mines the evidence left behind by her father, hoping to puzzle together who her father truly was, his apparent lack of interest in his family, and what that means for herself.

Hill shows us these women’s efforts, to succeed, to survive, to burn the whole thing down, with such precision and grace that to the reader, the urgency feels as “real” as one could hope for. The esteem Hill feels for her characters is apparent, even as they falter, struggling to find balance between what is expected of them and what they need for themselves. After each story ends, we wonder what’s next for these women, wishing the world for them. 

Linda Michel-Cassidy is a senior reviews editor at Tupelo Quarterly. Her story collection, When We Were Hardcore, is forthcoming from EastOver Press. Her poetry can be found in Rattle, December Magazine, Catamaran, and elsewhere.