In another successful venture with small press publishing house Les Femmes Folles Books, Laura Madeline Wiseman offers The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters: Ten Tales (HCSTT) this time around. This collection of ten short prose pieces at times reads similar to poetry in its brevity, yet is rich with detailed verse in others that transitions from scene to scene with ease. HCSTT is written in second person, creating an intimate conversation — but with enough distance for a story to unfold — about a young girl’s venture into womanhood. Wiseman explores relationships, not only physical but also emotional and societal, that shape her psyche and outlook. She explores the relationships between mother/daughter, father/daughter, grandmother/grand-daughter, sister/sister, and wife/husband throughout the collection with prevalent themes focusing mainly on hunger (physical and emotional), societal norms about women, and body acceptance. Lauren Rinaldi’s artwork provides beautiful imagery of near perfect female bodies put in scene, sometimes with others and sometimes alone, enhancing the vulnerability that gives the collection added depth.
A few of the stories in the collection are set up in mini-scenes, moving back and forth in order to tell what happens to the main character during a certain age. Wiseman’s transitions from one scene to the next are most interesting in “Hunger” when she rewinds and fast-forwards as if it were a recording as seen in “Rewind. Go back. Return to a year after your mom slept homeless on a couch” or “Scene select over section eight housing with the roaches, skip the blue apartment with the fleas, and choose the duplex on a dead-end drive.” Wiseman also uses this technique in other stories such as “Fish and Girls” and “What Marks Sisters,” but changes it a bit other stories as in “How to Kill Butterflies” as a selection of bug infestations help to transition from segment to segment.
Wiseman begins HCSTT with a roach infestation that represents the quality of life her young protagonist must endure. It is a representation of the poverty and what her mother cannot provide. The roaches are ever-present when she is with her mother and void from the stories that involve her father. The “roach” morphs into another creature in “How to Kill Butterflies,” the story that shifts the remainder of the collection to a more feminist tone. The roach becomes a symbol of the predator as her stepfather’s friend slides a hand in her underpants while she is sleeping in the back room of one of the many infested apartments they had lived. At this moment, it becomes apparent that Wiseman’s use of language in metaphor and symbolism becomes a platform, not to preach, but to reveal the realities that young girls and women face daily as she states immediately after the encounter,
“What about other instances of roaches? You remember hundreds of roaches. And didn’t you read somewhere that for every roach you see, there are ten you don’t see? Does that then make a million roaches that have been within inches of you?”
Although this section is profound and relevant, it does not browbeat with dogma and judgment. Wiseman is careful to give just enough to connect the dots and is masterful with her technique right through to the last story.
In “How to be a Wife,” the progression of the stories comes to a head as Wiseman tackles patriarchy and wifedom. It seems that the inevitable happens as she marries, and the expectations of “equal” are not met. However, instead of falling into the same path as her mother, Wiseman’s main character finds her freedom and security through education–the key to ending the cycle of abuse, abandonment, poverty, and dependence. “How to be a Wife” ends with the beginning of a beautiful life that moves into opportunity that is found in “From Russia with Love US.” One of the collection’s more experimental pieces, Wiseman uses the United States abbreviation (US) interchangeably with “us.” Wiseman is clever in this writing as she uses the disclaimer, “*This statement has not been approved by US,” and transitions such as, “When you return to US.” The writing here is creatively energized, and the content layered with the complexities of Russian culture and personal contemplations that help ground the story.
The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters: Ten Tales is a beautiful collection that although fiction, leaves me feeling like I have just been granted a full view of Laura Madeline Wiseman’s life, or at least one that is very similar. What a gracious host to take the reader on an intimate journey through time and place that allows us to cry, cringe, laugh, and smile with the players in her collection. I found some characters identifiable just like the characters we love and hate in Jeanette Walls novel, The Glass Castle, but Wiseman delivers with more tenacity. I recommend you pick The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters: Ten Tales up for a read that will make you want to read more of Laura Madeline Wiseman’s work.