Measuring Time & Other Stories by Nathaniel Lee Hansen
Wiseblood Books, 2019; 217 pp., $13.00
Review by Jeffrey Wald
As an attorney, I am constantly aware of the rules and duties surrounding conflicts-of-interest. Accordingly, I now feel an obligation to make this disclaimer: I have a conflict of interest in reviewing Nathaniel Lee Hansen’s first collection of short stories, Measuring Time & Other Stories. This conflict arose the moment I read the title of the first story, “450 Miles to Minot,” and immediately desired to like the collection. For Minot has immense importance in my own history. It is where both my parents grew up on farms in the fifties and sixties It is where I spent almost every holiday of my youth. It was the “big city,” two hours from my hometown, tiny Maddock, North Dakota, and about the only place I ate fast food, walked through a mall, or saw a movie at a theater growing up.
And so as I read on, I found myself cheering for Hannah, the young hero of “450 Miles to Minot,” as she escapes a claustrophobic college relationship in South Dakota. Hannah has been playing house, living with her boyfriend in an old farmhouse while taking eighteen college credits. What began as an exciting and romantic adventure has since grown stale and isolating. So Hannah makes a break for it. Where to? Minot, of course, the “Magic City,” where she used to visit her aunt, uncle, and cousins every summer. And just as she formerly delighted in Minot’s fresh air after a stuffy train ride, so she now delights in the freedom of the road and the growing freedom of adulthood (cigarette smoke) mingled with enchanted childhood memories (strawberry soda):
She left the stereo off and rolled down the windows again. She enjoyed the wind whipping into the cab, the way it swirled together the smells of cigarette smoke, strawberry soda, and the vanilla pine-tree air freshener wrapped in plastic, save for its exposed top.
The denouement in “450 Miles to Minot” is understated, the primary action interior rather than exterior, shown and not told. But through this telling we come to see what Hannah sees: that freedom means more than simply doing what you want, more even than doing what your parents do not want. And thus the freedom Hannah experiences in her 450 miles of driving to Minot is a freedom away from the claustrophobia and regret of sin, and toward something good. In this case, toward the Magic City!
Having now read “450 Miles to Minot” and the rest of Hansen’s first collection of short stories, I can say that my desire to enjoy the stories has been satisfied. Part of my appreciation for these stories comes from their sense of place (and not just the place of Minot). Hansen grew up in the small town of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, deep in the heart of flyover country, and these stories take place primarily in small towns in Minnesota or South Dakota. Hansen uses his intimate knowledge of rural Midwestern life to beautifully evoke the impression of these places, whether through a teenager running on a flat gravel road while “the broom grass shifted in the drainage ditch,” or by describing the scene after a young man crashes in a ditch: “A half-moon shone on the dashboard and revealed a field off to their left, the not-yet-plowed-corn creating a landscape as on another planet.”
While Hansen’s sense of place gives his stories a deep anchor, it is the people that occupy these places that give them their staying power. Take for instance “The Rez Fairy.” In the story, Alana is an inexperienced children’s counselor attempting to change lives on a South Dakota Native American reservation. But her idealism wanes beneath enormous stacks of bureaucratic paperwork and a massive caseload. On the day of the story’s action, Alana wants nothing more than to speedily finish her last two sessions and get home before dark. On the way to the reservation, she had counted three deer carcasses. (My own father taught shop class on a North Dakota reservation for years, commuting across 30 miles of gravel roads in an enormous 80’s Chevy nicknamed the “Deer Slayer” for running down six deer that barely left a dent in his steel behemoth.) Alana’s last two clients have characteristically run off, allowing her to leave early. On her way home, she comes across John, an elderly Native American, looking for a ride to the casino. Alana agrees to give the ride and then agrees to let John buy her dinner. These gestures appear uncharacteristic of Alana, yet reveal a deep desire: a desire for human connection, for closeness, to give and to receive. Her own young life is filled with professional disappointment and personal loneliness. In paying attention to John, she can perhaps kill two birds with one stone: feel as if she is doing some bit of good and assuage her loneliness. And then, in a moment of O’Connor-esque violence and grace, Alana receives a revelation. She sees one of her clients sitting with his family nearby, throwing a tantrum. She goes over to help, hoping her therapeutic calm will diffuse the situation. Instead, the boy throws a cup of orange soda and ice at Alana, drenching her. Again her ability to make a difference is thwarted. Her optimism is proven false. Does anything she do even matter? But then the second revelation and moment of grace: as Alana informs John she must leave, John offers her his hand. Instead of shaking it, she grabs it and wraps his arm around her and her wet sweater:
Even as its coldness pushed against her, surging more coldness through her limbs, there was the warmth of John’s body. She was trembling, but he held her steady. She thought, here was someone who knew what she was up against, and she knew what they were up against.
Alana’s moment of grace is not proof that she can change the world. She is not guaranteed any earthly success with her sad, broken, neglected clients. But for a brief moment, Alana experiences human connection. Empathy. She is the receiver, not the gift. And that itself is the gift.
Each of Hansen’s stories have these little moments of grace. Whether through a soccer mom finding meaning and purpose in baking cupcakes that end up saving the life of a diabetic old man (“Frost”), or a boy experiencing the thrill of runner’s high and the even greater thrill of a smiling wave from his crush (“Measuring Time”), or a young woman who gives aid and comfort to a teenage girl on the Amtrak who is drunk and vomiting (“On the Hi-Line”), and even through an insecure young professor sharing a moment of connection with an older colleague over (gasp!) a very uncultured Terry Redlin print (“Wildlife”). These moments lead to transcendence through the physical and temporal; in place and time and mediated through people. Theologically speaking, Hansen’s vision is extremely sacramental, where transcendence of the banal and ordinary is always achieved through the immanent—through the banal and ordinary.
Through these unassuming moments of grace, and the corresponding opening of reality that his characters experience, Hansen shows why he is worth reading. For he articulates the complex nature of all human life, even the simplest of lives. The hopes, dreams, loves, griefs, joys, worries, and conquests of his small-town characters are our own. For this reason, I hope this collection will find a large readership both from those of us living in flyover country, and from those in the planes above.
Jeffrey Wald is an attorney, husband, and father of three boys. His short fiction, poetry, and reviews have previously appeared in a variety of print and online periodicals including Touchstone, Stinkwaves Magazine, Summit Ave Review, Whistling Shade, Philosophy Now, Light, and Plainsongs.