A Cottonwood Stand
Sunstone Press, 2018
Although a slim book, Chuck Redman’s novella A Cottonwood Stand is at once dense and airy in both story and style making it a rewarding reading experience. Readers encounter two narratives braiding themselves together–one of an Oglala Sioux girl, Lark Laying Eggs, attempting to return her Pawnee sister to the village she was abducted from and the other of a small town newspaper publisher, Janet Hinderson, going up against a corporation looking to swoop into her home and make it a company town. Past and present, this century and last, are told at once seemingly in the voice of the very state itself in colloquial speech at once unsettling and familiar.
And that’s a key trait of Redman’s novel, making the familiar unfamiliar and vice versa. Many readers may find themselves momentarily confused or lost as the narration switches eras as well as heroes yet keeps moving along as though neither is any different than the other. It is an opportunity to pause and linger, to properly ponder just what has been said in the kind of county-speak we too often dismiss. Each woman exhibits a level of determination and ingenuity making them not merely sympathetic characters but ones you can’t help but side with and feel loyalty to in your bones. Redman’s great skill in this telling is giving us these two women while tying them irrefutably to the Nebraskan land which made them and they inform.
So it would be too simple to say this novella is of two parallel stories. True, in the strictest sense they do not meet however, it would perhaps be more accurate to think of them as sides of the same story twisting like some Great Plains mobius strip.
As she uses her newspaper to stand opposed to a meat packing planet locating to her town and destroying the cottonwood grove that is its namesake, Janet Hinderson stands opposed not to change but dissolution of the place responsible for her character. A century prior, Lark spans what we now call Nebraska to give her adopted sister back the life she needs to be who she wants to become. Both women discover their motivations are more messy and their solutions more complicated than they had suspected. Again, Redman’s great skill is crafting these stories and delivering them in a prose form at once economical and resonant.
Over a period of ten days (each chapter consists of the events of a single day), we are drawn into a drama achingly familiar for many in the Plains as well as those living in the Midwest. The choice between idyllic isolation or economic boons or, depending on one’s point of view, stagnation or progress, preservation or ruin. A Cottonwood Stand shows readers such dualistic thinking oversimplifies our lived experience. For many, the Janet’s contemporary story will be the easiest to follow and perhaps have the most direct impact. However, Lark’s story is one that nestles itself into a reader’s mind. It is not so easily moved as you replay it over and over finding vital connections. The great strength of analogistic storytelling is the reinforcing nature of the comparison, each amplifying the other, such is the nature of Janet and Lark’s stories.
Lovers of regional fiction, local color, will find Redman’s A Cottonwood Stand a wonderful addition to their library. However, Redman has also quietly written a superb literary novella, one that will challenge and reward fiction lovers across genres. There is perhaps a beautiful balance to a story beginning with sincere comedy “For the life of me, I cannot decide whether ambivalence is a good thing or a bad thing” and concluding with stoic kindness “Can’t promise nothing. I’ll do what I can.” In between, the lives spinning out explaining themselves, stretching out across this portion of Nebraska, don’t just move us but implicate us as readers. A Cottonwood Stand is a tiny gem, one well worth possessing.
About the Author
Chuck Redman was born and raised in small-town Nebraska, a place that still gives him chills even though the scenery is less dramatic than the goosebumps on his arm. But he eventually rambled east for undergrad at Michigan and law school at NYU. Then he marched west to practice criminal and immigration law in Los Angeles for 40 years. In his spare time, he wrote a little. He’s retired now, freeing him to enjoy his wife, his kids, his reading, his writing, his worrying about the future of the planet.
His novel A Cottonwood Stand, set in Nebraska, takes a satirical look at the way our nation has chosen to evolve, in terms of values. Mr. Redman’s daughter, a musician and artist, created a beautiful needlepoint of the story’s “legendary” cottonwood, and his son, a musician and community activist, adapted the needlepoint for the book cover.
His short fiction or humor have appeared in Writer’s Digest, Lowestoft Chronicle, Hemlock Journal, Jewish Literary Journal, and The Jewish Magazine.