by Ray Barker
1987's holiday film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles has nothing on Jim Shepard's recent short story collection, The World to Come. Nearly all manner of transport is explored: ship ("HMS Terror"), train ("Positive Train Control"), horse-and-buggy ("The World to Come"), and even hot air balloon ("The Ocean of Air"). Readers familiar with Shepard's previous short story collections would expect this; the title story from an earlier collection, Love and Hydrogen, depicts forbidden love aboard the doomed Hindenburg, after all. That story, and the majority of the ten here, are quintessential Shepard, mining historical events to illuminate human emotions.
As in his previous work, the primary sources Shepard consulted in the course of his research form the backbone of the bulk of his stories. (The list of those sources, offered in the books acknowledgments, could serve as its own experimental short story.) And as before, Shepard's tales are most effective when framed by a particular historical context. One can easily see this, for example, in The World to Come's opening story, "Safety Tips for Living Alone." In it, tragic and true events are filtered through the private lives of a handful of the husbands and wives affected by the collapse of a radar tower in Texas, 1961. The collapse of "Texas Tower no. 4 became one of the Air Force's most unlikely achievements and most lethal peacetime disasters, marooning nineteen wives including Ellie Phelan, Betty Bakke, Edna Kovarick, and Jeannette Laino in their own little stewpots of grief and recrimination." Shepard walks the reader through actual events with grace, offering both an instructive history lesson and a profound exploration of how regular lives are affected by national accidents.
Less successful is "Intimacy," an unintentionally ironic title as it is the least intimate story in the collection. Detailing the before, during, and after of a hurricane hitting sections of Australia, along with its devastating effects on three characters, the accumulation of details just pile up, with no broader significance. It almost reads like someone doing a sub-par imitation of Shepard.
When he's on, however, Shepard excels at creating authentic voices, regardless of the character. Journal entries form the narrative for "HMS Terror," where real-life Navy Captain and arctic explorer John Franklin's "lost expedition" is described by fictional crew member, Lieutenant Edward Little, from 1845 to 1848. As the unfortunate expedition progresses, the thoughtful entries slowly reveal a new tragedy each day:
Two more died in the night and when we set off in the morning two others, when it came time to pull, were unable to tighten their traces. We haul until everything goes black before our eyes. We sink to our chests in ponds of meltwater a quarter-mile across. My feet at days' end are yellow and wooden and swollen, and the toenails sugarcoat with frost while I inspect them. The soles have started to peel off.
As the horror unfolds (records indicate the crew eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive, at least temporarily), the narrator reflects on his still-felt romantic failures with a former classmate, and his personal failures are contrasted with the epic one. These entries, and Shepard's "historical fiction" in general, are not a dry telling of events, but rather evocative re-imaginings of a history that is told precisely and personally.