7 Short Story Collections That Examine Life in a Small Community

Books that explore how our identities and our lives are shaped by being part of a larger collective

Photo by Mitchell Kmetz on Unsplash

A woman who lives on my street knocked at my door. She told me she and her husband, members of the local historical society, had written a walking tour of our neighborhood, and she thought I might like a copy—it would cost three dollars.

did want a copy. It interests me that in the Vermont college town where I live, history feels so omnipresent in day-to-day life. I also felt something like déjà vu, a thought that wouldn’t coalesce, as the woman chatted amiably about her research. Then I realized: in my story collection, set in a fictionalized version of this town, I’d written about a woman who has self-published a slim historical account of the two-hundred-year-old inn in her neighborhood. She goes door to door, giving people copies. The story’s basic outline echoes the moment currently happening on my porch. I was experiencing something I’d previously imagined. I wrote this story, I wanted to tell my neighbor. 

I told my parents about this, and they cheerfully proclaimed me psychic. But, I think this blurring of the fictive and the actual came from my sense of the community I live in.

As I wrote the stories in The Woods I was trying to imagine the preoccupations and interests of my neighbors in our small Vermont college town. In doing so I was considering how regional and cultural forces shape us. Where does our sense of self come from? In part, it comes from the private, idiosyncratic rush of our hearts. But it also arises from the company we keep, chosen or otherwise, and the landscapes we live in.

I love fiction that engages this question of community: how being part of them shapes us; what unspoken bonds keep us tethered to them. The story collections here also, almost by necessity, examine notions of identity—how we’re formed not just by our individual wants and desires but also by our place in a larger collective.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

In this follow-up to the Pulitzer-Prize winning Olive Kitteridge, we return to Olive and the other residents of coastal Crosby, Maine, where the past lingers and is often cause for sorrow. Olive, cantankerous former school teacher, is in a new relationship with Jack Kennison. Both widows, both in strained relationships with their adult children, they’re plagued with regret over their mistreatment of those they loved, still love. Several stories involve sad homecomings, with people who grew up in Crosby briefly returning to find their childhood homes altered or gone. Olive’s son, Christopher, resents his mother for planning to remarry and moving out of the house his father built. Susan Larkin must deal with the aftermath of her childhood home burning down, her father dying in the fire. Yet Olive, in her seventies and discovering new contentment with Jack, is testimony to the possibility of people freighted with the past still finding present-day happiness.

Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So

In the late 1970s, when the brutal, murderous Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, the regime killed two million people. A sizable population of refugees ended up in Stockton, California, a city of “busted potential,” as it’s described in “Three Women of Chuck’s Donut’s,” the first story in So’s vibrant collection, which is an affectionate portrait of a Cambodian community and a sustained examination of how trauma becomes inherited, shaping the younger, American-born generation. These are stories of strained relationships, missing fathers, failing businesses or businesses on the brink, of lives laced with grief and optimism, often from the point of view of the children, who are considering if their own futures will involve running donut and car-repair shops, grocery and video-rental stores—if they want to escape this life or if they find a comfort in it they can’t find or recreate anywhere else. 

Prepare Her by Genevieve Plunkett

Plunkett, in distilled, elegant prose, creates disquieting portraits of young women and adolescents trying to make sense of their lives. Living in rural Vermont, these characters, in their dissatisfaction and confusion, leave their marriages; they seek out new friends; they worry about their inabilities to comfort those closest to them. In almost every story, tension arises from witnessing people who want emotional connection and companionship—a rich life well lead—but are confronted instead with limited choices. One character marries someone she grew up with, someone whom she’s been living with since they graduated from high school. Without money for a honeymoon, they spend their wedding night in her husband’s grandfather’s camp, a cabin without running water. The protagonist recognizes how meagre a celebration this is, but thinks, “To stay where we were would have been unbearable.” 

Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty

In stories that center on themes of sickness and healing, Talty provides a clear-eyed look at members of the Panawahpskek Nation who live on a Native reservation in Maine. This linked collection—spare and moving—primarily focuses on David, a young boy trying to make sense of his family members’ traumas; and on Fellis and Dee, unemployed young men struggling with addiction and hopelessness. The three of them handle their frustrations differently. Fellis is a marvel of self-absorption and a burden to everyone around him. We first encounter him having passed out outside, his hair frozen to the snow. Dee rescues him—a gesture that subsequently becomes a motif. Dee also beats up a cocaine dealer Fellis had picked a fight with; later he takes his friend to electroshock therapy sessions. But Dee avoids his own woes—including a girlfriend he needs to break up with, a mother living in a crisis center. David seems clearest on wanting to help his mother, his grandmother, his mother’s boyfriend friend, his older sister—all saddled with trauma and illnesses—but he’s mostly helpless in what solace he can provide. He thinks, “It was all sickness, the whole thing, something that couldn’t be cured…and I wanted to get up and right it all, but I didn’t know how.”

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

This stunning, devastating collection suggests that the Nevadan desert landscape—vast, empty, at turns beautiful and violent—mirrors its despairing people. In the opening autofictional story, “Ghosts, Cowboys,” the narrator, Claire, says, “At the end, I can’t stop thinking about beginnings.” She describes both the “cursed soil” that makes up Reno’s history—suicide, death by fire, a nearby nuclear blast—and her own origins: her mother’s suicide attempts and her father’s part in Charles Manson’s cult. In “Rondine Al Nido” a woman tells her lover about a terrible night from her past. She, as a teenager, looking to escape the dreariness of her life, convinces another girl to go to the Las Vegas Strip. They set out for adventure and to escape pain, but “…all those billions of bulbs flashing in time, signaling to the girls that they are, at long last, alive” turn out to be a siren’s lure. When the night starts to sour, one girl wants to go home, but the other—the woman telling the story—convinces her to stay, even when the night becomes sexually degrading and ugly. The story’s closing image is of a “city’s hunger for ruin.”

Nobody Gets Out Alive by Leigh Newman

In Newman’s absorbing collection, one character offers a theory: “Your average happy person didn’t last in Alaska. It was too much work not to die all the time.” And while these are stories of people enduring hardship—emotional, physical, spiritual, these characters have fight in them, and it’s their displays of tenacity, hardheartedness, and beautiful, sometimes goofy, hope that makes the writing electric.

The collection reminds me of Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, which also portrays people down on their luck in austere, bleak landscapes, but then manages a marvelous balance of emotional resonance, violence, and absurdity. In “Howl Palace,” a woman is selling her home after living in it for 43 years. Amidst the chaos of an ex arriving unannounced the day the realtor is showing the house—needing someone to take care of his dog while he travels for chemo—we learn that this woman’s “wolf room,” a place where she has 387 wolf pelts, from her time hunting wolves, was initially meant to be a nursery. But after five miscarriages, her then-husband took her “to the snowfields to go after wolves.” Newman creates all this metaphoric density in the wilderness and the homes of these people, for whom, “everything comes back, over and over.” 

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor

Mostly set in Madison, Wisconsin, Taylor’s collection is cerebral, rhetorically savvy. The prose is well-ordered and controlled in service of drawing readers into the emotional turbulence that’s most often the book’s subject matter. Broadly, as well, this technique mimics the portrayals of the characters—people who appear placid but are charged with grief or feelings of alienation. The stories are meditations on feeling disconnected from identity and from the community that, in part, gives rise to this sense of self. 

In the opening story, Lionel, who has paused in his graduate studies after he’d attempted to kill himself the year before, looks through the window of a party he’s about to attend, feeling “powerfully anonymous.” And in a later story, he feels “homesick for math,” a beautiful conflation of intellect and sense of place. In “Ann of Cleves” Marta, who’d started dating—and ended up marrying—Peter, another engineer, because they saw each other so often, is now in her first relationship with a woman, which extends to her exploring her identity separate from her profession, from her life’s exterior markers. “Marta felt for the first time in a long time that she had an inner self she didn’t owe to anyone.” 

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