Brief History of the Flood [NOOK Book]


Lillian Anderson is a strong-minded, backwoods-Minnesota girl, well-versed in the basics of survival. She can find air to breathe under a capsized boat, drive in a blizzard, or capture a wild duck. As part of a large struggling family, she tiptoes around her explosive father whose best days always come right after he’s poached something and her neurotically optimistic mother whose bursts of vigor bring added chaos. Lillian barrels through adolescence with no illusions about her future, honing her clerical skills ...
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Brief History of the Flood

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Lillian Anderson is a strong-minded, backwoods-Minnesota girl, well-versed in the basics of survival. She can find air to breathe under a capsized boat, drive in a blizzard, or capture a wild duck. As part of a large struggling family, she tiptoes around her explosive father whose best days always come right after he’s poached something and her neurotically optimistic mother whose bursts of vigor bring added chaos. Lillian barrels through adolescence with no illusions about her future, honing her clerical skills while working the nightshift as a salad girl in the airport kitchen. Just as she’s on her feet and moving out, their house is literally sinking into the marsh. Stunningly honest, this story explores the fierce love that binds family together.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Gail Caldwell
...rock solid...hilariously wrought... One thinks of the flinty poetry of Mary Karr's "The Liars' Club," say, or the cocksure ease of Alexandra Fuller's "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight...
Boston Globe
Arizona Republic
>[Lillian Anderson's] tone is always wryly funny, unflustered and watchful, as if reporting her family's traumas is more important than any emotional struggles of her own. She's a terrific character, and this is an impressive debut for Harfenist.
William N. Doughter
Jean Harfenist is an excellent writer on par with one of her influences, Mary Karr (The Liars Club)... Her writing is so honest that you could almost swear that it's her memoir, not the fictional Lily's.
Florida Sun-Sentinel
Lin Rolens
Funny and sad and somehow good natured, these well-crafted stories bring us in to the painful intimacies and troubled hearts of the Anderson family... Harfenist has real affection for these characters and under all the anger, dysfunction and helplessness, these people love each other. She dances the knife's edge of humor while allowing us into their damaged egos and hearts and their coping techniques... Harfenist explores the interface between love and dysfunction through young Lillian whose voice will stick with you long after you turn the last page.
Santa Barbara News-Press
Michiko Kakutani
Lillian Anderson, the spirited narrator of this collection of wonderfully wry-melancholy stories, knows several practical things. She knows that when you're driving in a blizzard and following another car's tracks, it's important not to follow those tracks off the road into a ditch. She knows that during duck hunting season, it's wise not to venture out near a lake because hunters are hiding behind blinds "with their thick shotguns loaded and their safeties off." And she knows that if you're out boating, and the boat sinks, you can make it to shore by resting every so often by floating on your back: "Taking deep breaths will raise your body to the surface like a balloon. But you can't afford to think about anything else, like how far it is to shore, or how long it'll take to swim it, or whether you'll be punished for letting the boat sink. Mostly you better not think about drowning. The second youngest of four children, Lillian is the careful, watchful one. She's the one who worries that her drunken father will fall asleep with a lighted cigarette in his hand. And she's the one who talks her mother out of suicide with a list of 10 reasons not to: "No. 3: You have a great body and if you're dead it will rot"; "No. 4: Dead women can't dance. No cha-cha; no nothing." "No. 5: Killing yourself is a mortal sin and you'll burn in hell." And 5B: "It'll be my fault for not stopping you, so I"ll burn in hell." Lillian also proves to be an observant and engaging narrator and, in telling her story, Jean Harfenist has written a debut collection that manages to be affecting and funny, lyrical and disturbing, all at the same time. Ms. Harfenist's interest in her characters, however, isn't the least bit sociological. Rather, she has created a family portrait, glimpsed through the prism of Lillian's memory that limns the complicated emotional geometry that connects the Andersons to one another… Ms. Harfenist shows us how these parents affect each of their children, and how each of them ventures, or fails to venture, into the world at large. She has made an auspicious and stirring debut.
New York Times
Publishers Weekly
First timer Harfenist packs a big story into a short coming-of-age fiction peopled by broadly painted, eccentric characters. In 11 linked short stories set between 1959 and 1970, this jolting, highly colored narrative traces the life of Lillian Anderson from eight to 18. She and her sister and two brothers live in a perpetually flooded, rundown house in Acorn Lake, Minn. Their mother, a convincingly portrayed manic-depressive, is always up for wild projects, like turning the family's pontoon boat into a giant-size floating wedding cake; once the fun is over, she sinks into bed for days. Their father, an alcoholic, sits in his recliner drinking beer and eating pickles when he isn't tormenting their mother. Essentially bringing herself up, Lillian sculls through her hardscrabble life, losing her virginity at 14 to a teacher, shoplifting with her best friend, fighting her way to a secretarial job and a small studio in the Twin Cities. Throughout, Harfenist combines pared-down first-person storytelling with terrific character descriptions. Sounds place the reader at each scene and in Lillian's mind, like the noise a city boy makes when he "walks across the crushed gravel driveway in bare feet." The author's direct narrative style, though sometimes abrupt, gives Lillian's story a bright, three-dimensional quality. Readers looking for a fast, entertaining summer read with multidimensional characters will be pleased with this effort. 3-city author tour. (June 25) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
In the normal world of parents and children, parents are the usual nurturers, but the Andersons of Acorn Lake, Minnesota are anything but normal. Daily living is both haphazard and potentially dangerous in this wryly comic novel about a dysfunctional family's experiences from 1959-1970. Marion, a neurotic, immature mother, is repeatedly oblivious to the consequences of her whimsical actions. When she decides on impulse to sell all of husband Jack's tools, she fails to predict his reaction. Her extravagant excuses for his violent behavior and the alcoholism that humiliates her in public serve only to make her look more ridiculous. Oldest son Randy tries to summon enough courage to shoot himself in the foot in order to avoid the draft, then decides to take his chances in Vietnam rather than remain at home. Mitzi, the precocious older sister, leaves home immediately after high school. The much younger Davey, a helpless victim of the disjointed happenings around him, is unable to either escape or produce any kind of order from the chaos at home. Lillian, the story's narrator, tries to force her parents to face the sad reality of their lives but her efforts fail, and she too succumbs to the temptation to leave home with her friend Irene who lures her with visions of success in the business world. In the end, when her mother threatens to commit suicide, Lillian returns home out of fear for her little brother's safety. As perceptive as Lillian usually is, it is Marion herself who delineates with surprising clarity what could be the only realistic solution to her predicament. While it appears impossible to rescue this family from themselves, the love that shines through like pinpoints of lightfrom a distant beacon may well be their only saving grace. Despite the abruptness with which some highly charged incidents end, this is an entertaining read with effective first-person narration, rich characterization, and original metaphor. One can only hope to hear more from this talented new voice in fiction. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Vintage, 212p., Ages 15 to adult.
—Phyllis LaMontagne
Kirkus Reviews
Frank and telling stories that detail the developing years of young Minnesotan Lillian Anderson. Former resident of the Ten Thousand Lakes area herself, first-timer Harfenist sets her 11 linked tales against the poignantly imagined backdrop of Sioux County, Minnesota, during the years from 1959-70. Starting when Lillian is eight years old, we are given snapshots from the girl's life, stories whose perspective gradually matures just as Lillian does. In the beginning, she seems happy with life in her family's lakeside house. But as the stories follow her into her teenage years, the tone darkens. Her father, who before had seemed merely cantankerous, is unmasked as a bitter and lazy drunk, while Lillian's mother, once depicted as fun-loving and carefree, looks now to be just a careless mess. Harfenist doesn't fall into the common trap in coming-of-age stories of making Lillian seem above her surroundings. While bookish and eager to make a life for herself in the Twin Cities, Lillian retains the smart, capable airs of a rural girl while, at the same time, fighting to keep her eyes on something beyond the broken-down chaos her parents wallow in. The sights and sounds of the 1960s creep in around the sides of the narrative-the incessant Beatles tunes, a brother sent off to Vietnam. But these notes are minuscule, surrounded by the immensity of the cold and watery Sioux County landscape with its duck hunters, snowmobiles, and occasional trips to the city. Most importantly, though, the author makes Lillian a memorable character whose forced but confused voice evidences a maturity not chosen but thrust upon her. Unafraid of hard work, but not pining for responsibility, she and her friends drive thelong Minnesota roads, chain-smoking and dreaming of their futures: "All you need is a radio in a rust-free car and twenty-nine cents for a gallon of gas." An unexpected delight: tales about an unlikely girl that linger well after the last page.
From the Publisher
“Wonderfully wry-melancholy . . . An auspicious and stirring debut.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“A granite-tough perspective on a wild and sometimes dangerous childhood. . . . One thinks of the flinty poetry of Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, say, or the cocksure ease of Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Hilariously wrought . . . without a whit of melodrama . . . equal parts humor and steel.”—Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe

“Rigorously beautiful without an ounce of dangerous pretension, a book I’ll put on my book club’s list and keep by the bed for dark nights when I need a language booster shot.”—Kaye Gibbons

“We root for Lillian because she’s an utterly convincing character, fiercely loyal and loving, [with] that rarest of gifts, a sane heart.”—Emily Carter, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Reading Jean Harfenist’s [writing] is like finding a hot slot machine in a casino. One winner after another? In wild defiance of the odds? Who cares. Stay seated.”—Richard Russo

"[A] luminous [story] about growing up on a Minnesota lake. Harfenist has spun gold out of the daily lives of the Andersons and their four children in Acorn Lake." –Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Few authors [have] the grace and generosity of Harfenist, whose writing is almost dreamlike in its lyricism." –Entertainment Weekly

"Charming. . . . Jean Harfenist shows a sure touch with characterization . . . deft and subtle. . . . [Harfenist's] narration is consistently absorbing and enlivened by flashes of description that are unexpected yet completely in character." –Washington Post

"Harfenist's integrated themes and evocative prose style elevate A Brief History of the Flood . . . giving it the satisfying, rounded feel of a good novel." –San Francisco Chronicle

"Funny and sad and somehow good natured, [A Brief History of the Flood] brings us in to the painful intimacies and troubled hearts of the Anderson family. . . . Jean Harfenist explores the interface between love and dysfunction through young Lillian whose voice will stick with you long after you turn the last page." –Santa Barbara News-Press

"Harfenist has endowed her narrator with an eminent toughness and scathing wit that make being with Lillian the baddest kind of fun." –Chicago Tribune

"Tender, brutal, funny. . . . I doubt there is a person born who could not 'relate to' this book." –Mark Costello, author of Big If

"Wryly funny, unflustered and watchful . . . an impressive debut." –The Arizona Republic

"Jean Harfenist is an excellent writer. . . . [A Brief History of the Flood] is so honest that you could almost swear that it's her memoir." –Florida Sun-Sentinel

"This writer can't put a word wrong." –Pawling News Chronicle

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307424273
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/18/2007
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 224
  • File size: 317 KB

Meet the Author

This is Jean Harfenist’s first book. It was a Minneapolis Star Tribune Best Book of the Year. Stories excerpted from it won the Prism International Fiction Prize and received special mention for The Pushcart Prize. She was named a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Nimrod/Hartman Award, the Kirkwood Literary Prize, the Missouri Review Editor’s Prize, and the Indiana Review Fiction Prize. Her short stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, The Barcelona Review, Quarterly West, Sycamore Review, Crazyhorse, Sonora Review, Wisconsin Review, The Sun, and the Cream City Review. She is a native of Minnesota, a graduate of New York University, and now lives in Santa Barbara with her husband.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Read an Excerpt


Mom says, "Now this is how it's supposed to be." She smiles her sparkly smile and looks around the breakfast table at all of us while the breeze off the lake comes through the screens and the red squirrels chitter in the oak trees. Our living and dining room are one big square with golden knotty-pine paneling and a high-beamed ceiling. Dad built it that way. Then he nailed deer heads and rifle racks to the walls and named it Jack's Hunting Lodge. But Mom put a sign out by the road with just our name next to a mallard hen: ANDERSON.

Randy always sits next to me. I kick his bare foot and nod at Dad who's jabbing his sliced bananas with his fork, click-click, click-click against the Melmac bowl. Randy raises his sun-bleached eyebrows at me, which means just let it go, but Mitzy jumps to her feet, points her skinny finger in Dad's face and says, "Mom says it sets her teeth on edge when you do that." I'll be eight this month, Mitzy's nearly ten and Randy's twelve. Mom looks at Dad. She's biting the tip of her tongue with her tiny white teeth. Dad pokes his bananas faster, like some mad guy knocking on our door, so she goes back to peeling her orange in one long strip using just her thumbnail. Without looking up, she laughs once, and says real loud, "Sure do love all of you."

Randy says, "Love you, Mom."

Mitzy says, "Love you."

I say, "Love you."

Dad rattles his coffee cup on the saucer for a refill, not saying a word even though we're all looking at him. When his upper lip flattens out, we stop looking. Then Mom stands up so fast her chair falls over backward. Her head's turning this way and that, when our black Lab, Happy, howls from the end of the dock with a sound that lifts the rest of us out of our chairs and sets us on our feet. Randy runs fastest, down the lawn. By the time I reach the end of the dock I have to squeeze between Mom and Dad and shove Mitzy aside to see Randy standing waist-high in the lake, holding Davey facedown over his shoulder like a sack of flour, pounding his back while Davey screams like he's being born again, but this time he's nearly two. Randy looks up at Mom and Dad, all huge eyes and big ears, wondering what he's supposed to do now.

When Davey gives a watery gasp it's as if Mom, Dad and Mitzy wake up and jump into the water. Davey's so slippery wet they almost drop him trying to flip him right side up. Then Mom has him tight against her chest. "My baby, my baby." Like My Baby is his real name. She's rubbing her cheek against his even though he threw up and now it's on both of them. Dad says, "For Chrissake, Marion," as if she's done something else wrong. "The kid'll be fine," he says. She looks at him like she can't remember who he is.

Davey is screaming again, shaking his little fists, when I realize I'm the only human being still standing on the dock with the dog. I jump in, hoping no one noticed. I can't stand babies, but I'm picking weeds off Davey now, shivering, just glad he's alive.

Later that morning the four of us kids and Happy are sitting on the floor of our pontoon boat, passing around a saucepan of chicken noodle soup Randy heated. The boat's a big red floating version of Davey's playpen--just a flat wooden deck with side railings, a steering column in the middle, and a little motor on the back. The whole thing sits on two giant aluminum floats called pontoons. We keep it tied to our dock. I let Happy lick soup from my hand, laughing when her tongue tickles my palm. She's a hero.

Davey stands up slowly, looking confused and kind of green from almost drowning. When the wake from a big inboard hits, his arms shoot up like he's surrendering, Randy snags him, hauls him onto his lap, and rearranges his fat baby legs to make him comfortable while we ride it out together, up and down, waiting for Mom.

Mom always says she wanted twelve kids, an even dozen to love her forever, but Dad put his foot down after I was born and it took her six years to sneak in Davey. She likes talking about the eight kids she never had as if they're off waiting somewhere--maybe in the toolshed back by the road. She points to her stomach and says her tubes are tied in knots so we're all she's ever going to have: Randy, Mitzy, me and Davey. And Happy.

Mitzy's sitting with her feet straight out, slapping the backs of her knees against the deck, drinking soup from the pan. She stops and says, "It was your fault, Lillian. You were supposed to watch the baby."

"No I wasn't," I lie. "Randy was."

"You're jealous because you're not the baby anymore."

I eyeball her. I always thought when I watched the baby, Mom was watching both of us, that it was a helping-out job like breaking eggs into the bowl when she bakes brownies.

Mitzy slaps my arm with the spoon, leaving a warm wet speck of noodle. I grab the spoon, fling it over her head into the lake. She shouts, "Goddamnit!" and kicks out at me like a thresher. "Mom's been sleeping too goddamned long."

As if it's up to me. I roll into a ball and cover my head. My sister's thin as a toothpick, but being mean makes her strong.

Randy says, "You don't have to swear, Mitzy."

"But moms shouldn't sleep so long," she says, covering us with spit the way she does every time she says something with an s in it, like her tongue's too thick or her lips are too big or her front teeth are too short. Something's wrong with her. She grabs the pan by its handle and sails it out over the lake, where it lands upright, does a couple of slow spins and sinks like the weeds pulled it under. "I'm waking her up."

Ten minutes later Mitzy walks back down the lawn toward us, eating from a tub of chocolate chip ice cream with a new and bigger spoon. Her short hair is already white-blond from the sun, just like Randy's and Davey's. In the winter their hair turns yellow. I'm the only redhead. Mitzy says, "Mom's got the bedroom door locked." She jumps onto the boat, folds herself down onto the deck without missing a bite. "I knocked, but she wouldn't even answer."

Randy asks, "Dad?"

"Must have gone into town."

. . .

By one o'clock we've stashed Davey in his playpen on the beach and we're bobbing around in inner tubes. I'm hanging by my armpits, kicking slow, licking the hot black rubber so I can watch the sun dry off the wet mark, when music explodes from the house. Two seconds later Mom's on the patio, dancing by herself in her yellow bikini, elbows in the air, fingers snapping. She was the Minnewashka High School Posture Queen. When Dad's in a good mood, he pats her fanny, tells her she's a looker and they kiss because they're in love.

We paddle toward her as fast as we can.

"See, Mitzy?" I say, kicking my tube onto the grass. "She just needed a nap."

"Shut up."

Mom leaps onto the pontoon boat, light as Tinkerbell, and swivels to face the three of us on the dock. She's perfect except for a scar like a crooked seam where her belly button was before she had Davey, and Dad made her get her tubes tied because she was already in the hospital. Her scar never tans.

"Kids, your mother has an idea," she says. "Mitzy? Drag that roll of chicken wire down here from the ditch across the road, and get all the white paint you can find. Chop-chop. Lillian? Sweetheart? Art supplies. Dry markers, glue. And my sewing kit. Randy, honey, get a bottle for Davey."

We ask what we're going to make, but she just points in the direction she wants us to go and we run off still wearing our wet swimsuits. All summer we get to hang them on the clothesline at night and put them right back on in the morning. We even wear them into town and run squealing through the freezer section of Gill's Grocery.

Later we're on the dock, painting, hammering and tying this to that, music so loud it's like the house is bending its knees, dancing to Louis Prima. Mom says, "Can't you feel that bass in your chest?" holding her breast like her heart's in there. Mitzy grabs herself with both hands where her breasts would be if she had any, turns to Randy, arches her back and slides her hands down her sides and over her hips. He gives her a fake smile, showing every tooth. I say, "Gross."

We sprint to the shed and the woodpile, finding things, then jump into the lake because it's eighty-five degrees and we're sweating like pigs. Having a blast. We race across the sizzling sand--Mom says it only burns if you think about it. She holds up a finger that means stop! We wiggle our fingers in the air and shake our bottoms while we sing the chorus: "So Chattanooga Choo-choo, won't you choo-choo me home? Whoooo-whoooo." That's the Andrews Sisters.

Mom says, "Drag two stools out onto the boat." We ask, "What's it going to be?" She shouts, "Screwdriver," holding her hand in the air for it. "Mommmmmm." We eat an entire package of Oreos. Mom shouts, "All the snow goose decoys!" Pepsi-Cola, Frosted Flakes. "You kids won't know what I'm creating until it's done." We feed ripple chips to the dog, cookie crumbs to the sunfish that live in the shadow of the dock.

I'm wrapping railings in white crepe paper, Randy and Mitzy are cutting cardboard hearts, when Dad appears on the lawn in his baggy black swim trunks, carrying a tall glass of tomato juice. We're hoping he's out of his mood. Otherwise he'll sit in a lawn chair all day shouting, "Marion, why can't you sit here with your husband for a while?" If Mom's awake, she's working on something.

Dad walks hard on the wooden dock, barefoot, heel-toe, thud-thud, pigeon-toed like Mitzy, and thin all over except for a potbelly like a bowling ball. He has a scar across his middle too, a giant frown where the doctors cut out seven-eighths of his stomach because we gave him ulcers. He still pushes there with the heel of his hand when we upset him, and Mom whispers, "Must have been the wrong seven-eighths."

She's standing in the shallow water behind the boat, a paintbrush in her hand, her face paint-speckled white. She's beautiful.

Dad steps to the edge of the dock to look, and his mouth falls open like she's running naked down Main Street. "What in creation?"

She dabs at the motor, lifts her chin. "Tah-dahhhh!!! Tomorrow we're going to win the Fourth of July float contest!"

Randy whistles like a train and we all clap except Dad who points his finger at her like otherwise she couldn't figure out who he's talking to. "For Chrissake, Marion. You don't paint motors."

Randy and I move toward her, but she tilts a hip, cocks her head and winks at Dad. "Darling, later I'll paint your motor any color you want."

After a long drink of tomato juice he smacks his lips. I hate lip-smacking. "After dinner?"

With the tiny tip of her paintbrush, Mom circles the top of the motor again while he watches.

"Heh," he says finally, smiling now, shaking his head because he can't get over how cute she is.

Randy shouts, "Camouflage. Mom, you could paint it camouflage for duck hunting. Gray and green and brown. All swirled together. I could show you."

Dad walks back toward the house.

Mitzy's finger shoots out toward Randy. "Drop dead. It's not a duck-hunting float. Don't be stupid."

Me? I'm hoping for yellow. Mom's favorite color and mine. We paint everything yellow.

. . .

We're moving like the wind. We work straight through until dark, when Mom strings extension cords all the way from the house to clamp a spotlight on a dock pole. We can't stop for dinner, but Mom slows down long enough to lift her arms to the sky and twirl, saying in a voice like she's praying, "Star light, star bright," while tiny waves kiss the pontoon floats and the crickets are the loudest you've ever heard.

Later, Randy whispers, "Hey," and points at Dad standing under the front door light. When we look, he shakes his head and goes inside, which is just as well because he would have told Mom not to get carried away when she's just having an up day. When a pointy-winged bat flies fast and low over our heads, we hit the deck, then lie there laughing at ourselves. By ten o'clock we're battling mosquitoes so big that Randy wraps Davey in a towel and runs for the house. Mosquitoes never bite Mom. Her blood's too sweet. Mitzy and I run screaming after Randy, swatting at ourselves. Mom shouts, "Love you." We holler back, "Love you, love you, love you." And it's true.

Early the next morning I rip off my nightgown and pull on the swimsuit I dropped on the floor next to my bed last night. It's cold and wet and there's sand in the crotch. Mitzy's on the other half of our naked bed, sleeping on her knees with her butt in the air, face in the pillow. She only lays down flat when she's going to wet the bed. Right now every mattress in the house is bare because the sheets are on the float.

Downstairs Mom's sleeping on the davenport with one of Dad's undershirts over her bikini, catnapping like she does in the middle of every project. Nothing to worry about. I move her cup of coffee and sit on the floor. Her hands are tucked under the side of her face, squishing her cheek up against her nose. When I touch a blond curl on top of her head, it wraps around my finger, her eyes pop open and she sits up, perky like she's never been asleep in her entire life.

She asks, "You didn't see it yet, did you?"

I shake my head no.

"Close your eyes." She takes my hand and leads me outside. The screen door slams behind us as she kneels next to me on the brick patio she laid last summer. She folds an arm around my shoulders, and I rub my nose on her neck for the warm smell of coffee and cigarettes. "Okay, Lily Nilly," she says. "Now open your eyes." She's pointing toward the lake. "Lily, sometimes you need to squint at something before you can tell what it is."

But I can see it perfectly. A wedding cake is floating next to our sagging dock. The bottom layer is a rectangle, and above that are two round layers, a little one on top of a big one. While we watch, the frosting turns from white to buttercream as the sun rises over the hill in the field behind the house.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Table of Contents

Floating 3
Body Count 25
Duck Season 43
The Gift 58
Salad Girls 84
Voluntary Breathers 103
Safety Off, Not a Shot Fired 119
Pixie Dust 138
The Road out of Acorn Lake 157
Fully Bonded by the State of Minnesota 170
The History of the Flood 189
Acknowledgments 213
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Jean Harfenist, author of A Brief History of the Flood

Q: A Brief History of the Flood is your first collection of short stories. What inspired you to start writing?

A: I started to write fiction in 1990 while home on medical leave from an ad agency, recovering from what had been diagnosed as chronic mononucleosis. After two years of being nearly bedridden, I had begun to have hours and, occasionally, entire days of feeling well enough to do something, when one morning the UCLA Extension catalog slipped from the stack of mail I was reading in bed. Idly, I flipped through it - and, just as idly, I reached for the phone and registered for a course called "Writing from the Inner-Self."
I had always been a planner, a lover of flowcharts and methods-time-measurement studies. This was whim. I wasn't well yet. And I was a businesswoman, not a writer. This was frivolous. It was silly. But I had to get out of the house; I had to produce something; and I had exactly nothing to lose. This was a low-cost, low-threat, no-credit course. Sick people could drop out. Besides, how difficult could it be to write from the inner-self?
"Snap-fit assembly" is a term describing a manufacturing method in which two pieces of plastic are molded separately but designed to fit together perfectly and permanently. You've experienced it: two pieces of plastic are pressed together and the resulting soft click eliminates any question about whether the right pieces are in the right place.
I had to drop that first writing course, and I had to drop in and out of several of those that followed, but Ihad heard the click.
Q: Once you felt that "click," what led you to the Andersons and Lillian? Are they and Acorn Lake modeled after your own rural Minnesota lake-town upbringing?

A: After years of living in Manhattan and even more years of living in Los Angeles, the first assignment of my first writing course spun me around and pushed me back toward rural Minnesota. The assignment was to ape the structure and tone of a sample story handed out in class. I remember only that the first-person narrator took us, dreamlike, from her present to her past, age by age, year by year. Like this: I’m seventeen, and my father is talking quietly to his mother on the phone as I pack to elope with the mechanic who cracked the block in Dad’s ’57 Chevy. I pause to sniff the STP trapped in the crescents of my uncut cuticles…. I’m fifteen. I’m angry. I’m out of here… I’m fourteen…and so on, moving hypnotically back toward the crib.
I began by making a list, jotting a brief memory next to every age of my life. In most cases, it was nothing more than a few words of remembered dialogue or an image; seldom was it more than a sentence or two, but it always truncated. Then, working backward, year by year, I wove fiction around each memory, creating a small story that gave plot and meaning to that which had had neither. Later, of course, I realized that those free-floating little memories are buoys marking unfinished business. But that’s another story.
The structure of A Brief History of the Flood is largely a result of my first-ever writing assignment; there is at least a kernel of fact in each story (if memories can ever be fact), I’ve stolen from my remembered childhood to write my fiction. It’s a method that set these stories firmly in a landscape—both human and geographic—that is of my childhood.
One thrill as a writer has been discovering the ways in which the episodes nest and cycle and repeat themselves. From a fragment of remembered dialogue or just as often from a long Midwestern silence, will come a story or scene that is part of a pattern that couldn’t have been recognized without the devotion of a great deal of time and attention. A few remembered words can be a path back through generations of a family and a community—even if the writer has lost over time everything except those few words and the feelings that surrounded them. Those same words can often predict the future as well.
Q: What do you think was unique to growing up in rural America in the sixties? Today?

A: In A Brief History of the Flood, the town of Acorn Lake is sixty miles from Minneapolis, while the town I grew up in was barely half that distance. To put it plainly, you could get from our town to Minneapolis—even before the freeway was built, long before a bridge spanned the Minnesota River between Savage and Shakopee—well, you could get to The Cities faster than you could go two blocks in a cab in Midtown Manhattan tomorrow morning in rush-hour traffic.
What was unique to rural life in the sixties was particularly intense just thirty miles from a major city. Although we didn’t understand what we were looking at, we had front-row seats for the demise of the farm as a family business and as a way of life. My father was a salesman but we lived in a farming town. Our friends, neighbors and classmates were farmers and children of farmers. It was a time that began when farmers who had inherited farms from their fathers and grandfathers still believed that their kids would inherit the farms from them; their daughters would marry farmers; their kids who didn’t inherit would find work, just as their own cousins and siblings had always done, jobs that supported (and relied on) farming. They’d work at the grain elevator or the feed-mill, start at the bottom in the lumberyard, get a job at the hardware store, or maybe even buy a bar.
But at about the same time that the expansion of the Twin Cities made the land too valuable to keep, it became necessary to purchase shockingly expensive, sophisticated equipment in order to compete with gigantic corporate farms. The farmers sold their land off in parcels. Profits declined farther and then disappeared until it became a question of whether they could manage to lose less this year than last, and whether they could keep up the payments on the new equipment.
I don’t think there is a great deal of difference today between rural and city kids – even those far away from major metro areas. Acorn Lake, if it existed, would be homogenized by TV, movies, franchised stores and fast-food outlets.
Q: You describe Lillian, the narrator of all the stories in this collection, as "fierce, wonderfully wry and yet painfully earnest, marching from eight to eighteen—the child of child-like parents, always figuring out new ways to raise herself…" What inspired Lillian’s personality?

A: Lillian is, in a way, a literary construct. I had written a number of stories about the Anderson family, most in third person from her older brother, Randy’s, point of view, in which Lillian was just one of the four kids, and probably too introspective and analytical to be of real fictional interest. Then one day she got angry, and as I played with it on the page, I started to hear the voice of a great childhood girlfriend—a cheerleader, a fearless, robust, farm girl who could cook a meal for a dozen farmhands when she was ten years old, a girl who, with the flick of a wrist, once sailed a dried-up cow-pie at me like a lethal weapon. When I laid her voice in over a less secure girl, it worked—probably because the robust voice coming from Lillian feels like a protective device. And it energized the fiction.
Q: There are four children in the Anderson family: Randy, Mitzy, Lillian, and Davey. Do you think siblings share a special bond that is strengthened through shared adversity?

A: No doubt. Although as anyone who has a sibling knows, never in history have two children grown up in the same household or shared the same parents—which takes us right back to the importance of memory and the way we look back from adulthood to create our own personal myth using as a framework the very fragmented moments that never quite made sense, the little buoys that mark unfinished business. We add to those the family chorus, those repeated stories that define us, and then toss in crystal clear memories that later turn out to have been remembered only from photographs.
Siblings do have the amazing awareness of shared history. But I think we often have an odd and seldom-discussed alienation from each other—and thus, I think, from the world, because even the people who were there often didn’t see what you saw; and as a result, their very presence today denies your inner reality—except for those rare stunning moments when something unexpectedly triggers a memory that lives in your body and your brain, and you look in a sibling’s eyes, and there are no words for that moment of profound connection.
And then you look away.
Q: Jack and Marion, Lillian’s parents, have a terrible marriage; Jack is an alcoholic who is mentally—and sometimes physically—abusive, and Marion takes pills by the handful to cope. Why does Marion stick with Jack? Do you think many women are trapped in similar marriages for similar reasons?

A: Marion stays with Jack because, as it’s often explained in the simplest psychological terms, she married a man like her father and she will make this man love her the way her father didn’t. She’ll get it right this time if it kills her. And it almost does.
Cycles and repetition and dysfunction roll downhill, one generation to the next.
Add to that personal history the socio-economic factors. Few couples divorced in that place and time. Even when Marion wanted to leave Jack, she couldn’t. She had no education, no work history, not a clue about how to behave outside the bedroom and the kitchen (she’d fled the PTA in bored horror years earlier). She’d been trained, ingrained from birth to believe that she was unintelligent. If she ever tried to use her brains, Jack told her that she thought too damned much. Even if she’d had the skills or the education to be self-sufficient, by the time she woke up to the fact that it was time to leave an abusive marriage, she was disabled by self-doubt.
Lots of women are trapped today and for similar reasons. I’m always surprised that so many are trapped in the year 2001 in spite of the progress of the last thirty years. So many seem trapped in trying to redo the past, hamsters running in cages, motion-mesmerized in the addictive drive to find the love they didn’t get. It happens to men too of course, but I didn’t write that book.
Q: Many of your characters get through life with a little help from various chemical substances: uppers, downers, alcohol, junk food. Do you think there is a culture of escapism unique to rural parts of the country?

A: No. Although urbanites like to think so. They might argue that there’s not much else to do in the boondocks. Or, worse, they imply that it’s a population with a lower IQ, and what can you expect from those people? And there’s the idea that the sheer frustration from the lack of opportunity out there at the gravel crossroads drives people to drugs, alcohol, and rutting like the farm animals they tend. I admit there’s a little truth in all of that. But the city flipside offers as least as many reasons—and probably more—to seek escape. Slightly different reasons; same endgame.
Q: Is there a mystique to people like Lillian, or yourself, who manage to truly escape, people who leave?

A: One would hope so.
The idea of the "survivor" has always intrigued, whether it’s the kid who escapes from a tough background—rural or urban—and then thrives, or the shipwreck survivor, or the gladiator who walks from the arena.
That’s human nature, that wanting to identify with the survivor (read: winner), to believe for a moment that we, too, could have survived the same situation. Add to that a fairly uncomplicated curiosity about how that particular rat escaped from that cage.
It seems that no one is more mystified or more curious about what made the survivor survive than the survivors themselves.
Q: As a writer, who are your influences?

A: My husband, my mother, my father, my siblings, my dear smart friends, my dog who begs shamelessly for love, and my cat who makes me beg. My step-children who grew up on a planet called "New Jersey." Louise Erdrich who wrote Love Medicine—a novel if I ever saw one, but with the structural beauty of short stories, and book full of people who stumble through life on land that feels as if it were my own; by Anne Tyler who writes so well that she makes it look easy—so easy that reading any few pages, anywhere, in any of her novels, can fool me into believing that it’s so easy that I can do it too; Tobias Wolff who had the courage to write This Boy’s Life and to do it with such sustained dignity—long before Dorothy Alison wrote Bastard or Mary Karr wrote Liar’s Club; Tim O’Brien who convinced me of what I already knew—that voice, even when it’s undoubtedly a voice that had to have been painstakingly carved into shape, can bring power to an idea. I think most writers want to create a set of feelings in someone who reads our work—maybe it’s part of not wanting to feel so alone. We want to write it so well that someone we’ve never met will one day look us in the eye like a sibling and say wordlessly, "Yes. That’s it." And Tim O’Brien convinced me with The Things They Carried that voice is the music that makes the words of opera penetrate from our brains down into our souls. If a writer had enough talent, she could, with voice and a few well-chosen words, without a musical instrument in sight, sync a story to Barber’s Adagio for Strings without the reader ever knowing where that sorrow and that feeling of being lifted up by the back of the head came from. If a writer had enough talent, she could create with a few well-chosen words the photographs that were never taken.
Q: What advice would you give to young writers?

A: Write. Read. Write some more. And if you get stuck:
Take a nap. Read a great book. Open a great book to any page and type it out until you’re straining with the desire to throw off the other (greater) writer’s clothes and go your own damned way. Take classes from many instructors, but take only what you need and leave the rest. Trust your instincts about when to move on. The instructor didn’t adopt you; she just gave you a seat in class and the benefit of what she gave blood to learn. Take it, be grateful, and move on, wide-eyed.
Come to think of it, label a manila folder like this: STUCK? And into it drop a note about anything that ever works to get you unstuck. Stick a Post-It to the side of your computer screen reminding you to look in your STUCK? file the next time you’re stalled out.
If you truly want to learn how to write a good story ending or beginning or any other thing, spend days and nights sitting alone on the floor, moving stacks of old prize collections—Pushcarts, O’Henry’s, Best American Short Stories—from your left side to your right, reading only the ends of stories or only the beginnings, and taking notes on how it was done when it succeeded.
Accept the truth that you will have to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.
Accept the truth that unless you’re unlike any writer I’ve ever heard of, you will have to give up a great deal of your life to be a writer. Hours, days, weeks, months, years. In short, most of your waking hours until you die or lose your marbles. But if you have that "writer thing" inside you, if you are that thing, you’ll die if you don’t do it. And if you have that thing in you, no one will have to explain to you that you have to forgo lots of picnics, parties, football games, long chatty phone calls to friends, and those inanest of inane hours reading People magazine. You’ll already be wondering why anyone would ever expect you to waste your time with activities that seem frivolous. That seem, well, silly. You’re not a businesswoman; you’re a writer.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Reading Group Guide

"Wonderfully wry-melancholy.... An auspicious and stirring debut." —The New York Times

This Reading Group Guide*—consisting of an introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and biography—is designed to enhance your group's discussion of A Brief History of the Flood.

1. As the book opens, Lillian's mother, Marion, looks around the breakfast table at her husband and children and says, "Now this is how it's supposed to be" [p. 3]. What does she mean? What does the author want the reader to understand from this comment?

2. Marion creates a surprising pontoon-boat float for her family to ride on in the Acorn Lake Fourth of July boat parade. Its theme might be viewed as a baseline for eight-year-old Lillian's ideas about what life is supposed to be like. What events force her to reconsider? If Lillian, as an adult, were to construct a pontoon-boat float symbolizing her own idea of happiness, what theme might she choose?

3. Some families seem to be held together by the glue of secrets. What secrets do the Andersons keep? Why? Would those same secrets be kept in a family today?

4. What is the significance of the girls who work the nightshift making salads for airline flights? How do they add to our understanding of Lillian's life? Of Marion's? Are they merely relics of a time gone by, or are they still relevant today?

5. Lillian says about her best friend, Irene, "Once you reach homecoming queen, there's no place else to go but bad" [p. 159]. What does this statement say about small towns? About opportunities for girls?

6. Little violence takes place in the Anderson household, yet Lillian's father, Jack, has a talentfor making the entire family feel as if they're living under a clenched fist. How is this tension created and maintained? What makes this tension tolerable to Lillian? To the reader?

7. Is Lillian a reliable narrator? Does she ever lie to the reader, or to herself?

8. The title comes from a letter Marion writes to the IRS. Why do you think the author chose this title? What might you have called it?

9. Lillian says, "I don't want anybody ever looking at me like the girl who got her ducks shot" [p. 57]. What does this statement reveal about her character? Do any of the other family members share this sentiment?

10. Lillian says of her best friend, Irene, "Nothing you can say will shock her" [p. 107], and she notes that Irene "can sweep a room clean of guilt, doesn't matter who owns it or how they earned it. Usually that's what you want in a friend" [p. 105]. What does Irene offer Lillian that she can't get from other relationships? In what ways does Irene resemble Lillian's mother? How are they different?

11. Why doesn't Marion seem to see Jack's failings as a husband and father?

12. How are Lillian's actions in "Duck Season" a continuation of what took place in "Body Count?"

13. What role does shame play in the Andersons' behavior? What are its sources? Which children are most affected by it? Why? How does it influence their choices?

14. Men generally aren't portrayed here in a positive light. What type of men do you think Randy and Davey will become? Why?

15. At the end of the book how does each member of the Anderson family think "it's supposed to be" [p. 3]?

* Written by the author.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2003

    Looking for a Summer Book Club Pick?

    A Brief History of the Flood is that rare book that can't be put down, and one you'll want to read again and again.  Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, each chapter fits together with a satisfying click to reveal an insightful picture of an unforgettable family of unique characters. Read the excerpt and I guarantee you'll be captivated by Harfenist's voice, wit, and the wisdom that comes with understanding how we all grow up survivors of imperfect families. If you liked Mary Karr's memoir, The Liars Club, you will love this book. It may be billed as fiction, but it has the unmistakable ring of truth. Ironically, A Brief History of the Flood turns out to be a life preserver--reminding each of us how our unique childhood journeys help determine our destination in the world, and how understanding the past can buoy us in the present.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2003

    Jean Harfenist is a brilliant new novelist

    THIS IS LILLIAN ANDERSON¿S LIFE IN Sioux County, Minnesota from aged 8 to 18 going into, 1970 as brilliantly told by new novelist author Jean Harfenist, and what a find Harfenist is. She displays wit, a catching voice, skilled writing, and creates engaging, believable, family characters, and friends ¿ as she flashily flaunts family flaws and foibles. Lillian, a happy youngster begins to recognize her parents are a badly flawed couple, as she starts to grow older and matures. She would like something better for her own life, and recognizes that inadvertently her parents¿ lack of family skills leave opportunity open to her. That also means the opportunity to make mistakes. As the stories progress we wonder if she will every be any better than her surroundings and her folks that she can now recognize as lazy drunks. After all, she muses at one point, a rust-proof car and money for a gallon of gas is all one needs . . . Isn¿t it? Harfenist continually produces the wry line, the funny sentence, the howling paragraph in a manner that refreshes each turned page, as with close pal Irene who can ¿can sweep a room clean of guilt,¿ Usually that¿s what you want in a friend.¿ Irene can put Lillian at ease by confirming (in connection with the mother) that a woman cannot get pregnant after age 40. Sometimes Irene ¿grins like she just discovered birth control pills.¿ As teens, they do not do anything by half. On a shopping spree they collect 3 blouses, six skirts, 18 greeting cards, a dress, a teddy bear, a lighter, a scarf, cosmetics, a pair of cuticle scissors, socks, 12 underpants, and a stroller. ¿The stroller¿s a first,¿ they tell the constable defensively. Under arrest, Lillian hurriedly tries to get Mom on the phone. Mom will do anything asked of her as she wards off migrames and hangovers but driving over 70 miles is out of the question. So . . . With an airy sweeping gesture over the goods, Lillian philanthropically, declares to the police ¿ You can have it all back.¿

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2003


    Lil Anderson is young, gutsy, brave, naive, quirky, fast-talking, quick-witted, and totally affecting. She is also the memorable debut creation of California writer Jean Harfenist. Presented as a series of short stories, which segue easily from one to another very much like chapters, "A Brief History of the Flood" traces the life of Lil from 1950 through 1979, between the ages of eight and 18. She shares a usually flooded, much in need of repair lakefront home outside of Acorn Lake, Minnesota with older brother and sister, Randy and Mitzy, younger brother, Davey, and a black Lab, Happy. Mother Marion in tiny shorts with a wide belt encircling her tiny waist has a world view determined by the words of every love song she has ever heard. She sees only what she wishes and wishes for the impossible. If she's awake, "she's working on something," weaving a rug from panty hose or even building a floating wedding cake for the Fourth of July Float contest. Dad Jack is an intrepid hunter who built their home then dubbed it "Jack's Hunting Lodge." He delivers dictates and diatribes in equal measure as he clinks ice cubes in his glass of Old Heaven Hill. Lil learned early in life to avoid him because as her Mom explains the young girl has "a talent for saying the one thing that'll launch him. Like good morning or hello." As an eight-year-old Lil enjoys carefree days on the water, drifting in the family's pontoon or flipping over a rowboat to make breathing room underneath. Harsh reality strikes with 1965 as Randy is of draft age. Mitzi has a busy social life, having "dated every other boy who comes to school without manure on his shoes," and Lil surrenders her virginity to a teacher, Mr. C. At the age of 15, along with five friends, Lil finds work putting together salads for airline passengers at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. It's driving 62 miles each way but that night shift duty pays $1.73 an hour, even though they're overseen by a hefty supervisor who "fills the cafeteria door like a new refrigerator." Noting that her Mom knows Lil can run her own life and "Dad doesn't care," the teenager moves quickly into shop lifting with best pal Irene who pierces Lil's ears in the basement restroom of a shopping center. Being caught doesn't stem their taste for further adventure. A teacher mentions that Lil's Mom has "bursts of vigor," little knowing that these spasms may be due to the Dexedrine she pops, and generously shares with her daughter. This drug induced energy enables Lil to whip through her high school classes, and land a job as a typist at an insurance company in St. Paul. Keeping the pounds off, Lil finds, is another benefit of her "speed system." Growing up has not been easy for Lil, but reading this masterfully crafted coming-of-age tale is pure pleasure. Jean Harfenist is definitely a writer to watch with her knack for presenting an arresting narrative voice that lingers in readers' minds. In precise, penetrating strokes the author portrays off-beat characters with their foibles full-blown. "A Brief History of the Flood" is a winner.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2002

    Lake Wobegone It Ain't

    Smart and crisp, Jean Harfenist's debut collection of linked stories will appeal to both lovers of short fiction and those who prefer novel-length works. Lillian Anderson of Acorn Lake, Minnesota, is a fresh and memorable character who leaves an impression long after the last page.

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