The Midwestern town of Ephrem, Illinois, is a place that exists only in author Janice Deal’s imagination. But in her beautifully woven linked story collection Strange Attractors: The Ephrem Stories, the town and its residents are so completely realized I found myself poking around Google maps, trying to determine which actual place it might be based on. Thankfully no reference is needed, as this collection begins with a delightful hand-drawn map identifying the homes of Deal’s characters, as well as landmarks that any reader who grew up in semi-rural America will recognize: the local community college, omnipresent Walmart and Jewel-Osco, a dying mall at the edge of town, the one hotel that’s really a motel, a remote location near the lake where teenagers go to hook up (nicknamed “the Babymaker”). Every location on the map is rendered vivid through Deal’s meticulous storytelling.
The characters in Ephrem lead mundane lives, until Deal telescopes in to moments of revealed truths, sudden outbursts and hidden traumas, making the residents more complex and deeply relatable. The challenges they face in this Wisconsin border town are universal: loneliness, financial insecurity, strained family relationships, alcohol abuse, a persistent feeling of restlessness.
In “This One is Okay,” widow Looie is lonely but finally free after the death of her abusive husband, Grant. She becomes increasingly fascinated with the Oxford English Dictionary, learning and using new words to pass the time, admiring the power of words to “mean exactly what they say.” Later we learn Grant “used to tell their son that if you don’t say it, it never happened.” There is strength in being able to name things, to speak the truth, perhaps for the first time in her life.
The heartbreaking and darkly humorous opening to “Lost City” (winner of The Moth Short Story Prize in 2021) begins with two children left to fend for themselves while their mother is away, marrying her latest boyfriend: “They used to call their mother Key Lime Pie, because of her penchant for going off to a timeshare in Florida without them, and because for a long time they thought the name was funny.” Third grader Rex turns to drawing in the woods to find peace and contentment. When two older, cynical hikers interrupt one of Rex’s drawing sessions, a place that was once magical to him loses the glowing edges of childhood and becomes real, hardened. He feels something in him has changed, but doesn’t yet know how to name it.
In “Family of Two” and “Strange Attractor,” we bear witness to an impulsive, gruesome crime committed by a teenager, Teddy, and “what passed for living in the shambolic After” as her mother attempts to make sense of her new life. Despite being a good student, Teddy is bullied and made to feel like an outsider. She becomes obsessed with one of her teachers, spying on the woman and her husband daily through the back windows of their home: “They were like a TV show, she thought, where the same things always happened […] At first Teddy thought they must be unhappy—weren’t they bored?—and yet Teddy returned, night after night.” Their simple, conflict-free existence is foreign to Teddy, whose mother moved them to Ephrem to escape the “mean girls” tormenting her at a school in Florida. But in Deal’s stories, problems are rarely solved so easily; sometimes there isn’t a resolution to be found.
At one point in Strange Attractors, a character observes that “people in Ephrem don’t leave.” Yet even those that do leave can’t seem to escape the things that tether them to this place. In my favorite pair of related stories, we meet Sandrine and Tiga, a mother and daughter with an increasingly distant relationship. “String Theory and Other Animals” follows Sandrine as she attempts to get back on the wagon following a DUI, and debates taking a string theory class at the community college because “at 57 she feels old, but not too old to learn something transcendent.” Tiga has managed to escape the small-town malaise of Ephrem and lives in New York, but several years later in “The Hotbed of Whatever,” she returns to visit Sandrine and finds her mother is still living in the same rented bedroom at Mama Robin’s house. Visiting the local sights together—the novelty of the drained lake, the jungle-themed mall restaurant—Tiga only feels worse. One of their conversations leads to an unexpected revelation. “I was planned, right?” Tiga asks her mother, after learning she was conceived at Ephrem’s infamous Babymaker hook-up spot. “I was part of a plan?”She is not alone in wanting her life, her very existence, to mean something more. This is a feeling all the residents of Ephrem share. It is universal. The people of Strange Attractors might be your neighbor or coworker, your friend or family member. They might even be you.
Strange Attractors: The Ephrem Stories
By Janice Deal
New Door Books
Published September 12, 2023
Elizabeth Niarchos Neukirch is a Greek American writer and public relations consultant for arts and nonprofit organizations. Her writing has appeared in publications including Third Coast Review, The Sunlight Press, Take ONE Magazine, The Daily Chronicle and Mississippi Review, where she was a finalist for the 2021 Fiction Prize. Learn more at elizabethniarchosneukirch.com. Photo credit: Diane Alexander White