Among Animals (ed. John Yunker)

-Reviewed by Bethany W. Pope

Ashland Creek Press’ Among Animals: The Lives of Animals and Humans in Contemporary Short Fiction is a complex anthology with an agenda that runs deeper than the themes explored in each individual story. The editor, John Yunker, makes his stance on the nature of the anthology clear in his introduction, through prose as lucid as any in the rest of the book:

At Ashland Creek Press, we believe that literature has an important role to play in not only re-enacting the world around us but in changing it for the better. This anthology grew out of a desire to publish writing that re-examines and re-imagines our relationship with nature—specifically, with animals. It’s a relationship in need of serious therapy.

Among Animals Ashland Creek Press

Luckily for us, the stories were selected as much for literary merit as for their service to the editor’s stated theme. All of the stories were written with the laudable goal of legitimizing the need for recognition (and application) of the rights of animals in our interactions with them.

It was difficult to winnow the stories in Among Animals down to a few analysis-ready examples. There was a wide selection of stories to choose from, featuring creatures that were both familiar and alien. I would like to highlight Jean Ryan’s ‘Greyhound’ because the story utilizes a strong, gently nuanced narrative voice and many shifting perspectives to tell the story of a slow-growing relationship between a human couple and the ‘non-starting’ three-year-old greyhound that they rescued from a retirement facility where she was confined when she refused to run around a racetrack:

Or maybe the idea came to her suddenly. Maybe, as she crouched behind the gate, as the crowd filled the bleachers, she added the whole thing up and saw at long last that she was being duped: The rabbit wasn’t real.
“Can I pet her?” I ask.
“They’re not used to affection,” the blonde says, opening the cage. “They don’t understand it.”
I come closer, and the dog rises to a sitting position. Her eyes are large and apprehensive. Carefully I extend my hand; she sniffs it and shrinks. When I touch her, she flinches.
“Good girl,” I soothe, and though she allows me to pet her shoulder, it’s not much fun for either of us.

There is no anthropomorphising here, no artificial sympathy, just a deep psychological understanding of the nature and effects of trauma. The dog is a dog; unloved and emotionally abused, it responds to tenuous affection in a way that anyone who has ever worked with abused animals will instantly recognize.

It is important to note that the greyhound is not the only creature on a journey here. The author doesn’t ask us to choose to sympathize with the dog over her human owners; there is empathy for members of both species in ‘Greyhound’. The healing is mutual. Holly, the partner for whom the greyhound was purchased as a gift, suffers from a debilitating case of eczema. As she works with her new animal, building bridges of affection and teaching the dog how to do everything from eat without shaking to relieving herself in the garden (and not in the house), Holly has the pleasure of watching her rash begin to fade. Nurturing, it seems, is beneficial to everyone. In the end, of course, the secret trouble at the heart of the family is cured – and the greyhound remembers how to run.

C.S. Malerich’s brutal, humorous story ‘Meat’ is delivered in the voice of a seven-year-old child whose parents are experimenting with the ethics and emotional cost of America’s carnivorous lifestyle by raising a pig for eventual slaughter. ‘Meat’ (whose titular character is named for what he will eventually become) explores some very dark territory with honesty and clarity of insight. The story is very well-written, walking the tightrope between existential horror and tenderness, especially in the final scenes when the pig (who has, through the clearly executed power of its own charming nature has been reluctantly accepted into the family) is taken to the butcher’s for a ‘painless’ execution and a future as food:

Mom told me to hug Meat. I did, and even though Dad had told me not to, I whispered “Good-bye” in her ear. When I pulled away, she was confused. And then the butcher came up behind her, with his stun gun, and his big hand was on her shoulder. She was still looking at me, and there was no more curiosity and no more confusion. Meat was scared.
The butcher was true to his word, though. It was all over in less than two minutes. He stunned her, lifted her, and hung her by one of the hooks above us. Then he cut her throat. Her eyes were still open—she was still looking at me. Blood came pouring out of her on each side of her head. I wondered if it wasn’t too late, if they couldn’t stop it and save her. I half wanted to shout, “Wait!” and find out. Death was a mysterious thing for me. I’d always thought about it like a light switch you flicked off. But here was Meat, not on or off. Dying but not yet dead, living but not able to live anymore.

I was particularly fascinated by the blasé descriptions of violence in ‘Meat’. The narrator is obviously traumatized, but he describes the scene with what may seem, to those uninitiated into farm work, like an oddly cool detachment. The above scene actually made me smile a bit; I’ve killed more than a few pigs in my time on the planet and this scene accurately captured the paradoxical depersonalized horror of the first death I witnessed.

‘Meat’ is, in many ways, just a story, more about the emotional development of the child than the ethical tangle of our human hunger for flesh. In terms of subject and style it reminded me of the scenes with Charis’ pork-rearing grandmother in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. There, as here, a pig is fed, tended, lived and then consumed – to the horror of the child. In the end, the family’s experiment in ethical eating is a success. After a few months, the trauma passes, and the process begins again, ‘Things didn’t really get better again until my eighth birthday. That’s when we got Drumstick.’

Although Malerich never explicitly states this within the text, it is important to note that in the context of pig-killing Meat suffers a particularly good death. It was a particularly good life, considering the state that most American pigs exist in. There is no open land for them, no comfort from other pigs or human beings, no quick killing. This story reminds readers, without being preachy, that the lives of animals are permanently interwoven with ours, whether we acknowledge it or not. This anthology reiterates this connection over and over again, in a myriad of ways, expanding that connection from the realm of pets, through domesticated livestock, until it encompasses all of the things that we call ‘nature’, revealing (in a way that is wholly free from the saccharine flavour of sentiment) that we are and always have been part of the web of the world.