Laura Hulthen Thomas
by Keith Taylor
From the May, 2017 issue
Laura Hulthen Thomas includes expansive short stories in her first collection, States of Motion. A popular way to write a short story is to suggest its outcome in the first paragraph. You then find the enjoyment, the beauty, or the pain in the details that get you to the expected conclusion. But Thomas does something different. Just when she has you drawn in to one expectation, she will shift the focus, add a plot turn, or change a character dramatically. This kind of movement takes some time to develop--I think there's only one story under thirty pages in the book, and one is novella length at seventy. The texture and completeness they offer is the great gift of this collection.
In "Reasonable Fear," for instance, you start out thinking this might be a humorous story about a bat infestation. Indeed, I heard Thomas read this part of the story, and it made for great entertainment. But not too far in, it becomes clear that there is family tension here, too, and things start to get frightening. By the end, the police officer protagonist with the same name as the mystical German poet Rilke is reduced to an overwrought emotional mess--and a threat to everyone around him.
Thomas has taught for many years at the U-M Residential College, and her stories take place in southeast Michigan. Some Ann Arbor places are easily recognizable, even named: Dexter and Jackson avenues, for instance. Others might be slightly fictionalized versions of Canton or Saline. And the stories all occur after the Great Recession. Like many of us, Thomas's characters have not recovered their economic confidence. They live with fear and uncertainty.
The final story in States of Motion, "Lab Will Care," is a wonderful showcase for Thomas's talents. It takes place in a university lab that is studying the physical changes caused by fear in the brains of mice. Like many research projects, it is losing its funding, watching years of
good work slip away before reasonable conclusions can be reached. The lab manager, Emily, is pinching every penny, trying to keep the work going until a new round of funding opportunities might arise. The first plot turn arises when an old friend of Emily's, a woman who is known for leading animal rights protests against research labs, shows up to reassert the prerogatives of friendship. You think the story is headed in another direction at this point, but suddenly it changes again, until finally you end up dwelling on the conflict between mercy and the impossibility of forgiveness. It's an amazing journey over the space of one short story, and Thomas guides us through it with dexterity and grace.
Thomas reads from States of Motion at Literati Bookstore on Wednesday, May 17.
[Originally published in May, 2017.]
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