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Review: ‘The Winter Bees,’ by Jill Kalz

November 9, 2018

Mankato’s Minneopa Valley Press intends to publish books that capture the “complications and complexities” of rural life. The press can be proud of its first endeavor, Jill Kalz’s debut short-story collection “The Winter Bees.” Although I have reservations about the book, one thing I don’t doubt is Kalz’s reading of the human heart.

Set in and around New Ulm, Minn., these 10 intertwined stories concern Ana Zins, bartender; Shirley Reichman, bookstore owner; and Herman Engelmann, farmer/aviator, among others. I appreciate Kalz’s writing about them and about German-Americans, an ethnic group generally ignored in American literature. I also appreciate her ability to find beauty in this small town, where images of bees, flowers and honey sometimes comfort the lonely.

In “Last Call,” nothing new happens in Ana’s Saloon — night after night the same talk about the weather, about sauerkraut and potato dumplings, about the owner’s psoriasis. Encouraging a potential suitor to stay in town, a lonely, aging Ana Zins says, “The whole southern Minnesota is in some sort of watch. … Looks like we’re right in the middle of it all. Montevideo clear down to Albert Lea.” Before the visitor leaves once the weather clears, perhaps forever, he buys Ana the painted tulips “her cousin Otto made from wood.”

Life is also bittersweet for Shirley Reichman in “The Humming Bee.” In her bookstore, she must deal with a “slow” Joe Portner, who claims he’ll eventually buy all of her books about bees. Seemingly one of the few contented characters in town, he spends days watching honeybees “gathering nectar from the clover blooming white along the Minnesota River.” Many of Kalz’s New Ulm residents are emotionally and spiritually alienated from the town and the land, though not Joe Portner, beekeeper.

In the poetic and luminous Herman Engelmann story, the protagonist tries to escape the earth by flying model airplanes. When he falls for a woman on a neighboring farm, he takes flight in another way. In its give-and-take between earth and sky, reality and dreams, the piece is heartbreaking and is what I mean about the beauty to be found in Kalz’s stories, a beauty that suggests possibilities beyond the possible.

Several things detract from her work, however — for one, her overuse of German words and phrases in “Last Call.” In “A Yin-Yang Year,” she tells about, rather than dramatizes, events. Although I was often impressed by her prose and by her insights into life, Kalz’s plain style, her matter-of-fact narration, might seem at times naive to readers. “Beneath My Skin Like Honey” and “The Flight of Herman Engelmann” are the best stories.

Finally, I like the book’s design and dimensions. The title on the cover is honey-colored. Below it lies a watercolor, acrylic, of a winter hive. In a nice touch, the image of a bee appears on the book’s spine beneath the author’s name. In the end, you might think of Kalz’s first short-story collection as a small, sweet gift such as Joe Portner has given Shirley Reichman.

Anthony Bukoski is the author of “Head of the Lakes: Selected Short Stories.” He lives in Superior, Wis.

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