Byrd has a plain style that lays bare the quirks inherent in family relationships. Unfortunately, her debut collection suffers from a lack of variety. In one tale, two boys are badly burned by a fire set accidentally by a friend. While the brothers are in the hospital, their father promises them an elaborate camping trip when they recover. When they depart, they encounter a man who asks too many questions about the mask one child must wear to protect his healing skin. This story is skillful and moving, but another set in a burn victims' ward treads the same ground--a child's mother fears what others will think of him--without adding new insights. Similarly, on first being introduced, Emily is compelling--a promising 13-year-old girl about to attend her eighth-grade prom but who begins to teeter at the edge of madness as she and her best friend write out a script for Emily, nervously facing her first date. A novella and second story on Emily's empty later life, her conflicts with her mother and her father's inability to accept that he is dying of bone cancer lack the lucidity of those moments when Emily has her first glimpse of adulthood and turns back in fear. (Dec.)
In precise and elegantly poetic prose, Byrd paints disturbingly realistic pictures of the pain and beauty of difficult family situations. The title story documents the mental breakdown of a young girl as she prepares for the eighth-grade prom. In "Order and Disorder," the fragile reality of a housewife comes crashing down around her as her family rebels against the perfect world she has created for them in her own mind. And in several tales, Byrd examines the horror and painful beauty of children who have survived devastating fires. "Hotter Here Than It Ever Was in New Jersey" portrays a woman going up against her young burned son as she attempts to bring him out of the hospital and into the world. And in the fantastic "Major Six Pockets," a family goes in search of "the perfect camping spot" with their two badly burned sons just released from the hospital. These are remarkably beautiful and painful stories, and Lee Merrill Byrd tells them with great skill and honesty.