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The O. Henry Prize Stories 2006: The Best Stories of the Year    edited by Laura Furman order for
O. Henry Prize Stories 2006
by Laura Furman
Order:  USA  Can
Anchor, 2006 (2006)

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2006 follow in the path of writings by William Sydney Porter (1862-1910) best known as O. Henry. A brief bio of Porter, in the Publisher's Note mentions his background as a newspaperman ('skilled at hiding from his editors at deadline'), and tells us how his 'simple characters, easy narrative voice and humor, compelling plotting, and surprise endings' have entertained many-a-reader. He wrote 'to make a living and to make sense of his life'.

Porter served a prison sentence for bank fraud in Columbus, Ohio. His acquisition of the penname O. Henry is open to conjecture. Was it a call to his family cat, 'Oh! Henry!'? Perhaps it was a moniker 'inspired by the captain of the guard in the Ohio State Penitentiary, Orrin Henry'. Eight years after O. Henry's demise, friends established a memorial 'awarding annual prizes in his name for short-story writers'. The goal of The O. Henry Prize Stories remains as always: 'to strengthen the art of the short story'.

Readers will connect with different stories. The following stood out for me in eloquence, meaning, and intent. Paula Fox's poignant The Broad Estates of Death describes a son's journey to visit the father he has not seen for twenty years. The impetus for Harry Tilson and wife Amelia to travel to his birthplace is a letter from Doctor Trevoir, advising that Ben Tilson suffered a stroke. I was struck by the melancholy of Fox's story, encompassing a visit to a dying man, as well as the son's memories of his youth in the valley and of a dying mother giving birth to his brother, who died a short while later.

William Trevor's The Dressmaker's Child is a haunting story of Cahal, who works in his father's repair garage. Cahal is approached by a tourist couple from Ávila, Spain to drive them to the sacred Virgin, whose tears are witnessed by penitents. On the return trip, Cahal hears a thump from outside his vehicle. Often, a child ran out of a cottage in that vicinity. He continues, anxious to reach home. No one approaches Cahal as days go by, nor are there reports of any unusual happening. Then one eve in Cyber Café, Cahal notices the Dressmaker staring at him.

Stephanie Reents' Disquisition on Tears renders macabre humor with a serious punch. There's a sound at the door of a house hidden from the road, made by a woman without a head. She's invited inside, asking for a glass of liquid as she begins to cough. 'You told me you wanted a Disquisition on Tears', she says and demonstrates the difficulty in collecting varied tear forms - brimming tears, onion tears, cascading tears - and finally 'Lacrimae mortis' held in a 'container the size of a baby food jar' in which 'The liquid smelled of hospital'.

In a longer short story, Grace revisits the Ottawa Valley to search for the Travers summer house. One past summer she waitressed at the Hotel at Bailey Falls, where she met Maury Travers. Sunday night gatherings were a ritual at the Travers beach house. By midsummer Maury talked of marriage. Then Grace met Maury's stepbrother Neil, the doctor, for the first time. It was an unexpected, odd encounter. She sat in the car waiting for Neil as he visited an obvious bootlegger, and the day filled up with unnatural silence. Alice Munro's Passion has a graceful, lilting, persuasive tone and flow, reaching out to the reader with family gatherings, secrets, losses - and transformations.

Not to be missed is The Center of the World by George Makana Clark, which tells of an Outreach Mission for Troubled Boys in Zambezi, Africa, in 1972. Now, Mission funding has stopped, and older boys go into the armed forces, while the younger are sent to independent schools to serve the rest of their time. A once-potato farmer says, 'We have lost our place in the world, and our stories mean nothing anymore.'

Xu Xi's story Famine follows a fifty-one year young woman, whose A-Ma and A-Ba died in their nineties. Now 'rid of the responsibility as provider', she leaves her teaching job to travel and indulge in foods of the world, rebelling against the skimping her parents lived by, even when they could have had more. And David Lawrence Morse's Conceived tells of a community living on the spine of Ceto, a whale. The inhabitants live in nineteen huts, and the elders decide when couples can marry - when there is proof a child can be produced.

The twenty short stories in the 2006 publication encompass locations including New Zealand, Africa, Ireland, China, and the American South. Laura Furman, Series Editor since 2003, considered thousands of stories published in hundreds of literary magazines. Included with the published stories are jurors' commentaries, along with each author's inspiration for their winning story. Themes include humor, fairy tales, fantasy, romance, obsession, and politics, and stories vary in length from four pages through twenty or more.

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