Behind the Titles: A Closer Look
at A Pile of Crosses by Steven Ostrowski
Featuring ELJ Publications’ April Jones and Lisa Marie Cole
‘A Way to Keep You Here’ is a story about Luke, a younger brother, being asked by his sister Joni to steal their family’s emergency money so that she and two guys she hardly knows can run away to California. What were your initial thoughts on this piece? For me, as in a lot of the pieces in the collection, I felt this overwhelming desire from the characters to escape. Joni wants to escape to California because she thinks it will be so much better than where she is now. Luke wants to escape doing his chores which is what lands him in the position for his sister to ask him to steal the money for her. This hits on a much larger human trait. The need to always be looking ahead. How many of us are guilty of saying or thinking something along the lines of, ‘well when I finish this class my life will be better?’ or ‘when I land that next job, my life will be easier?’ The concept of the future somehow being so much more meaningful than the present seems to be woven into our genetic makeup. Not that Luke’s life is so awesome that he’s crazy for wanting an escape, even on a small scale, but there’s something so tragic about missing the present. For me, this piece hit on that tragedy by Luke realizing too late that he should give his sister the money because the guys she’s with won’t take care of her (he lies and tells her the money is gone).
Yes, I think you are right about ‘A Way to Keep You Here.’ There certainly is this sense of hoping for something else besides what is right in front of these characters. It seems they are all caught in a kind of melancholic limbo, and yes, like you said, they all seem to want to escape from wherever they found themselves. I was reminded of Splattervision, in a way, because of how these characters looked at and meandered through life, how the smallness and the bigness of life is shown—this weird paradox of living is shown—so acutely. And yes, I thought this was especially apparent in stories like ‘A Way to Keep You Here.’
Another theme in this collection is the knack for missing something really obvious, like it ‘No Sign.’ In this piece, Aaron has come to the cabin on the lake because his friend Eddy wants to tell him something. Aaron notices that even though the rest of the lake is frozen over and smooth, there’s a spot that looks ‘sloppy’ and he can’t seem to find Eddy. However, instead of going to check it out, he stands in the cold and thinks how his friend is always complaining. It’s in this inability to see the obvious, that we the reader shake our heads even though we have surely been guilty of it. How often do you hear that hindsight is twenty-twenty. This collection does something more than just comment on unfortunate clichés. It actually puts them into context for us, so that we can see these gleaming errors as someone else’s rather than relive our own mistakes. But, I think that like any good piece of literature, this collection is inviting us to take a deep look and change. Did you see the same thing in this piece? Or where you struck by something else entirely?
‘No Sign’ was interesting for me as well. These stories had such vivid language, they reminded me of poems. We are given such small snippets of people’s lives. What struck me about ‘No Sign’ was how it—and other stories here—was so short. So much can be said—even in prose collections—in such few words. These stories were like poems to me, ‘No Sign’ included.
My favorite story was actually the title piece, ‘A Pile of Crosses’. There were so many lines there that were so apt and pointed so richly towards many of the ideas that you spoke about in your comments. First, Tate observes that when Jackie fights, it’s like he is trying to beat up his own life. It seems Jackie doesn’t like where he is—he’s wanting to escape—nor does he like who he is. What a terrible spot to be in, but what a strangely beautiful story nonetheless. Tate goes on to notice, when he’s looking at the snake statue, that ‘He spent a lot of time in his own head trying to explain to himself the way he felt about things, trying to put it into words.’ This is what A Pile of Crosses does for us, put things into words—words that we didn’t even know we needed words for. Next, Tate thinks that the artist who made the snake was able to say something ‘without coming straight out and saying it.’ This book does that as well. And it does it extremely well.
I found this collection was enjoyable.
I simply loved this collection.