Stephanie Vaughn's Niagara Stories

"Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again."
Of Crocuses and Boxies
The first time I listened to a Stephanie Vaughn short story was the New Yorker: Fiction's podcast of  Tobias Wolff reading Vaughn's "Dog Heaven" back in 2008. That story opens with the line quoted in the caption above, and I thought about it this week when the crocuses came up early, because I'm not sure if Wes, my son's hibernating three-toed box turtle, will have survived this winter's fickle thaws followed by hard frosts. Crocuses are a harbinger of both spring and pet death for me. Last year Scout, Wes's erstwhile love object and rescue partner, was caught out above ground too early during a far more temperature-consistent winter. Scout had only one back leg, and too much of her literary namesake's curiosity without enough of her sense, and I console myself to think that Scout had at least one decade of "Turtle Heaven" springs replete with wood lice feastings before her old raccoon-imposed or dog-imposed (we'll never know) amputation made it too hard for her to burrow back down once the ground refroze.

"Dog Heaven" Is Not Unbearably Sad
Vaughn's army base daughter character reminds me a lot of the literary (not chelonian) Scout, and any parent looking for worthwhile girl heroines should consider downloading this podcast of Wolff reading "Dog Heaven" and playing it on their car sound system the next time they have their teen captive for a 40-minute drive. It's about middle schoolers, but it's a grownup story, and although its agency of loss is rooted in either bad luck or carelessness or human viciousness, the moments in the story that fuse as "Dog Heaven" assuage its sturdy acknowledgement of sadness and separation. The joyfulness and rampant affection demonstrated by the dog-character Duke sustains the narrator and the reader without being cutesy-poochy, plus Duke's barkalogue as read by Wolff is the best human evocation of dog-language-thought I've ever heard. Vaughn's physical descriptions of Duke aren't too shaggy, either: "the red glory of his fur flying," "the dog swims his heavy fur into the black Niagara River" and a combination of e- and r-rich adjectives applied to Duke's eyebrows that will touch you when you hear it and slay you with its orthographic poetry when you see it printed on the page. (The text version of "Dog Heaven" is only accessible to subscribers on The New Yorker site, but there's a link to the publisher of Vaughn's re-issued short story collection at the end of this post).)

Short Story Mastery
Vaughn does everything well, not just strong girl heroines and three-dimensional canines. Her story structure and foreshadowing is genius-level yet transparent (Chekhov's pistol blah-blah-blah). She sketches the routines and settings of army brat life in her Fort Niagara indelibly. Middle school life is depicted in all its weirdness and asperity. Far better than most contemporary authors, Vaughn uses fresh-yet-frictionless language to conjure the emotions in a person, a dog, and even an entire classroom (N.B. the "Fact Monday" scene in "Dog Heaven"). Her flexing of narrative time and her use of echoing imagery is so fluid and subtle that you only notice it after the fact (Wolff and New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman cover this in their discussion after the story). Vaughn also redeems lyric description into a necessity (N.B. the ice storm landscape). I could nota bene the heck out of this story, so please just go ahead and listen to it.
Online link to New Yorker: Fiction podcast of "Dog Heaven"
iTunes link to New Yorke: Fiction podcast of "Dog Heaven"

No Dogs in "Able Baker Charlie Dog"
I feel as if all of the above slights "Able Baker Charlie Dog," the other Vaughn Niagara army kid story available on the New Yorker: Fiction podcast, this one published earlier in the magazine but recorded much more recently by Téa Obreht. It's good in many of the same ways as "Dog Heaven," and it goes some way toward satisfying the inevitable craving for more of Stephanie Vaughn's writing, but I'd recommend listening to the masterful "Dog Heaven" first to avoid diluting its power by semi-similarity.
Online link to New Yorker: Fiction podcast of "Able Baker Charlie Dog"
iTunes link to New Yorker: Fiction podcast of "Able Baker Charlie Dog"

Sweet Talk is Back in Print!
I'm very happy to report that the formerly-out-of print Sweet Talk, the short story collection that contains Vaughn's Niagara stories plus some decidedly non-middle-school material, has been republished by Other Press, in a delightfully affordable paperback edition, as well as in e-book form. Apparently Vaughn fanship on Goodreads inspired the reissue--hooray for reader-driven publishing! Finally, here's a very nice online interview of Stephanie Vaughn by Patrick Somerville for The Rumpus.

Scout in the Mist
FTC Disclaimer: Podcasts are free, my New Yorker subscription (for print access) is a perennial Valentine paid for by my own ex-army dad, and I gain nothing but Vaughnevangelistic joy if you decide to buy a copy of Sweet Talk.