Review: Jenny Robertson’s Hoist House

In underground mining, a hoist is the machinery that makes possible the movement from the aboveground world to the world below. Some hoists were once powered by steam; now they are all electric. The world’s largest steam hoisting engine is housed in northern Michigan, and the shaft hoist house itself appears on the state and national lists of historical note.

This shift from seen to unseen, obvious to opaque, is an apt metaphor for many of the characters in Jenny Robertson’s Hoist House, a collection of stories set mostly in the Midwest and a novella set in the iron-mining region of the North Star State. From the first story, set in the shadows and neon lights of Minneapolis’s legendary First Avenue club, to the last, Robertson pulls the reader down into the subconscious realms to explore what lies beneath the costumes, the postures, and the routines people complete again and again simply because they have always done them.

Robertson’s stories are indeed powered by an electrical current that flows from one to the next. Shorter vignettes serve as interstitials, punctuating the collection’s bright narrative arc with brief glimpses of a darker underbelly—a nefarious neighbor, a recently released ex-con, a wife and mother who no longer cares. These vignettes are unsettling, partly because of what they reveal about the characters we meet within them, and partly because of what they suggest about the stories they break up. What is visible to the naked eye is formed and informed by so much we cannot see, even when it is right in front of our faces.

The longer stories in the collection mine the memories that hold families and friendships together. In one story, “The Triumphant Return of Maggie Pancake,” an elementary school teacher, jilted by her clown fiancé, returns to her hometown to commiserate with two of her closest friends. The three women are all deflated versions of the puffed-up dreams their younger selves once imagined, and the premise could have fallen flat in more sparing hands. But Robertson doesn’t dodge the details that give the story and its characters the texture of unfinished people. We meet them at a moment when they both are mourning Maggie’s future and remembering a friend who passed away long ago, when all three of the living friends are on the cusp of something new. The story closes at this horizon, just as their fates are about to change.

All of Robertson’s characters are dynamic, intriguing, even when it appears, on the surface, that much of their daily lives do not change. Yet the minor shifts are just as pivotal as the threats of larger explosions, both natural and man-made, and that’s part of what makes these stories so profound. Small moments reverberate with larger tensions. In “Ground Truth,” a tornado spotter whose ex-wife “said he was obsessed with disaster far out of proportion to its probability” chooses to chase down his family instead of tracking a storm. As the cyclone closes in, Len is struck not by storm-propelled debris but by a sudden understanding of his own not-so-self-effacing motivations.

The revelations are never heavy-handed or weighed down with the need for closure. The collection’s first story, “Sex-O-Rama, 1993” sets out expectations nicely. Cher Bebe is a feather- and glitter-clad dancer in a Minneapolis club and his father is dying on the other side of the country. There is potential in this story for the loud distractions of major, life-changing events, but Robertson stays quiet and sticks close to Cher Bebe, so that the reader cannot look away from him on this one fateful night. The result is, in Flannery O’Connor’s words, both surprising and inevitable.

Likewise, the novella that gives the collection its name is deceptively muted. Narrated by Sadie, the middle child of a Finnish mining family in Minnesota, and set in the early part of the last century, “Hoist House” is at once a piece of historical fiction and a timeless meditation on loyalty, sexism, and sexual assault. In the opening pages, Sadie’s brother Karl assaults her. Their parents force the two siblings into adult roles—Karl heads into the mines with their father and Sadie is sent to work in a general store in town, where she is mesmerized by the world she discovers with the help of her new employers’ children. Socialism, bootlegging, immigration, and grief waltz in the background of a family story populated by cousins, uncles, a devout grandmother, and a persistent mother. Sadie is a perceptive narrator but she is dazzled by the lights of photography, cinema, and her high school’s theater department. While Robertson allows the reader to see beyond what the teenager understands, we stay with Sadie as she watches her brother’s world grow smaller, explores her own dreams, and plays at growing up.

These theatrical themes thread their way throughout Hoist House as characters try on new personas and pretend their way toward truth. That’s one way the book reflects the experience of adulthood, the way grown-up adults must sometimes uneasily and awkwardly put on business suits and ties over the costumes of youth. Yet Robertson shows us that it is in rejecting this stagecraft, by choosing instead to wear what we want most, we might come closer to pulling ourselves out of the darkness and into the light.

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