There is an appealing sense of redemption in the notion that our daily cares might extend in a purified form beyond the limits of our temporal lives. The linked stories in James Calvin Schaap’s collection Up the Hill offer several versions of that essential redemption. Most of the characters in these stories, including our central narrator, inhabit the cemetery “up the hill” from the town of Highland, Iowa; they are the ghosts, in a manner of speaking, of the former inhabitants of the town down below. The narrator calls them “redeemed souls” – they have put off (or been redeemed from) the anxieties of time and emotion but have not surrendered their care for the details and histories and experiences and identities of the living. “We’re a cloud of witnesses,” the narrator tells us, “sentries designed to hover implacably, but human enough not to have forgotten the frenzy of what you call ‘the human experience.’” We watch in these stories as the deceased welcome the newly departed, monitor the ongoing lives of their relatives, set aside old grudges and conflicts and explore the many blessings of leaving behind their mortal selves and yet still inhabiting this place they love(d).
Schaap’s characters invite us to care deeply about the loves and mysteries and loyalties of this life because they might mean something to us in the next.
This well-crafted collection leaves readers with several lasting images: an old, Dutch, school janitor playing a viola in the cemetery in the middle of the night for an audience of saints he can’t see; a novelist confronted by the ghosts of those he turned into his characters and criticized (though graciously) for having done so; a Native American grandmother with her arm around her grandson as they see the interplay of the living and the dead on a hill above the Missouri River; an ex-boyfriend standing alone over the casket of his one-time lover as her spirit hovers nearby; an outcast nurse named Vivian stunned to find herself redeemed after one lousy prayer; a deceased Dutchman interrupting an afterlife game of cards to recount his teenage years in Nazi-occupied Holland. Schaap builds his small town out of these personalities, in much the same way Sherwood Anderson built Winesburg, Ohio. It is fair to say that Anderson’s work does a better job of establishing a palpable sense of place, but then again Schaap’s work is at least half-concerned with the placelessness of the spirits up the hill, providing a view of humanity Anderson doesn’t reach.
In each of Schaap’s stories, we find characters who have wrestled in life with what it means to be human and many who have found in death a further opportunity to learn, ironically perhaps, what it means to live well. Death is referred to as “deliverance,” a word that highlights both the narrator’s perspective on the other side of the divide as well as the notion that death, in these stories, is merely the changing of one state of being (and physical location) for another. The tone throughout is hopeful.
If there is anything here to critique, it may be the occasional wordiness of our narrator, the long-deceased and well-informed editor of the town’s newspaper. The narrator tells us on several occasions that there’s a learning curve for those who first venture up the hill; they learn to see things not how they were, but how they are in this new realm. And indeed, I will confess that there was a learning curve for me as I read these stories – the narrator’s verbosity, his roundabout way of getting to the heart of these tales, was a little off-putting at first. At his best, as in “Phoenix” or “The Night of a Thousand Tears,” the narrator crafts his verbal wanderings to set the stage for a rich interweaving of storylines and characters whose tales are illuminated by sometimes circuitous backstories. The narrator also excels in those tales that require little backstory, such as “The Lost Sheep” or “January Thaw” or the gorgeous closing story, “Yet We Can’t Not”: tales of immediacy in which the old journalist simply and artfully reports the events. At times, however, the narrator’s encyclopedic knowledge throws off his pacing and, as in the case of “An Intervention for Miss Pris,” overwhelms the story itself in the narrator’s verbal texture and voluminous details (though to be fair, the last quarter of that story is quite satisfying).
Despite the narrator’s occasional excesses, each of the stories in Up the Hill offers an optimistic, even hopeful look at the cares of humanity that might to more cynical minds seem the finite stuff of this temporal world. Schaap’s characters invite us to care deeply about the loves and mysteries and loyalties of this life because they might mean something to us in the next, and to those already there. And Schaap’s narrator invites us to remember the value of stories, showing us as the collection concludes, if I may borrow his words, that we tell each other stories because “we can’t not.” It is the hopefulness of these visions of the afterlife, this love of storytelling, this delicate and redemptive view of the humanness in these characters, that makes Schaap’s artful and vocal stories so worth reading.