Exploring Elements of the Human Condition in a ‘Rapid Read’ | Review of “The Middle Ground” by Zoe Whittall (2010) Orca Books

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Since the release of Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People a few months ago (link to my review), people in my circles have not only been talking about her book but also their own actions and desires in comparison to that story. So it seems fitting that some of her other writings need to be explored, especially her work for Orca Book’s Rapid Reads series entitled The Middle Ground.

Pages 1-2

When he put the gun to my neck, I closed my eyes. A simple reflex. I imagined the cold metal tip was really just a magic marker, a wet cat’s nose, or the small superball my son was always losing behind the couch cushions.

What happens when you feel the graze of a gun against your skin? Either you die or your whole life is changed.

I’d been doing this thing while drinking black coffee. I would close my eyes so I could pretend it still had cream in it. Apparently, you can lose five pounds in a month just by giving up the half-and-half. I’d been trying to psych myself out. Eyes shut, I’d imagine it all differently.

It didn’t work with the gun either.

Whittall knows what great literature is suppose to do, give readers pause to consider the ‘human condition.’ And she manages to do it with this small story about Missy Turner.  Readers are vaulted into Missy’s ordinary life – a good job, a great husband and a teenage son who is a great kid – but all that is ruined in one bad day, and as we follow the narrative, we share Missy’s emotions and heartache through the story. Then the man with the gun appears and a rush of chaos and confusion envelops us all.

Page 29-30

Instead of quietly backing toward the door or trying to dial 9-1-1 on my cell phone – I kept it turned off and buried under all my purse crap -I walked around the counter and stood beside Christina. Maybe it was the look of complete terror on her face. Or the fact that I had held her as a squirming pink newborn. Or the whimper she made as she dropped the book and fumbled with the cash register.

He let go of her necklace and placed both hands on the small pistol.

“Don’t hurt her,” I heard myself saying. “She’s just a girl. Whole life ahead of her.”

“Shut up, lady, and get back around to this side of the counter, all right? Don’t push any buttons. Just vie me the money, and I’ll be on my way.” He tapped his foot, like he was impatiently waiting at the bank on any non-felony errand.

The scene was nothing like on TV, where the music starts, cueing your heart to speed up. It felt slow, like molasses pouring from a cup. Christina handed him a handful of bills. He stuffed them into a yellow bag advertising the new superstore on the outskirts of town. It couldn’t have been more than a hundred bucks.

The plot moves fast here but it is filled with detail and emotion. And no flowery prose or psychological definitions. Missy Turner could be easy one of us or our neighbours. Whittall has documented an element of the human condition in detail for us here while keeping the guidelines of the Rapid Reads series in check.

Page 54-55

I tried to pretend everything was normal. But one moment I’d see the scene in the kitchen that I’d stumbled into that morning, the next I’d feel the gun on my neck. The house didn’t feel my own anymore. The walls made me anxious. The sound of the clock ticking loomed. Outside, a car backfired, and my skin was instantly covered in sweat.

I’d rarely felt the house so empty without Mike and Dale. I normally relished the rare opportunity to be alone, but the quiet was unnerving. I kept seeing Christina yelp and the drop her book. I felt the pressure of the robber’s arm against my neck.

I heated up some leftover pasta but couldn’t eat it. I didn’t want to be alone but couldn’t bear the thought of calling anyone either. The phone rang and rang, and the answering machine filled with messages from nosy neighbors and Mr. Harlowe and Jackie and my mom. Everyone who had heard about what happened. I turned on the TV but only paced in front of it, until the coverage of the robbery came on. It was a very short clip, mostly Christina, with me standing beside her like a goofy, useless tree. Is that what I really look like now? So old. I used to be stylish and young. How did I start dressing like a mother who had given up?

Zoe Whittall is an excellent novelist whose works clearly document the human condition we can all relate to. And her contribution to the Rapid Reads series entitled The Middle Ground, clearly and simply does that. A unique read and a good one to ponder over.

*****

Link to Orca Books website for The Middle Ground

Link to Zoe Whittall’s website

Link to my Q&A with Ruth Linka –“Rapid Reads . . . aims to have excellent writing, great stories, well-known authors, all the things we value in longer fiction, but in a shorter, more accessible form.” | Q&A with Ruth Linka of the Rapid Reads program at Orca Books

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