Shrouded By The Dark Woods
Unnatural Habitats and Other Stories offers Ozark noir served warm
Review by Elizabeth Prentice
Angela Mitchell’s debut book, Unnatural Habitats and Other Stories, is a collection of fictional stories that evoke the singular quality of the Ozarks: at once captivating and ominous. The seven stories are loosely connected, with characters whose lives intersect across years and places throughout the region. Taken together, the stories of these characters capture evolving identities and relationships rooted in a place surrounded by a changing, increasingly globalized and decidedly displaced world.
Each story is suffused with a sense that things are not as they appear, that darkness has the capacity to pervade those places and relationships that seem most ordinary. The stories include that of a woman who, after becoming disillusioned by her marriage, finds herself divorced and employed by an insurance company revealed to be an illegal drug front. She becomes increasingly intertwined with the business through her romance with one of her supervisors, who himself struggles for power with his unwieldy and aggressive partner. Here, as in the rest of the collection, the reader is never without the sense of impending danger (often realized) and a reticence to trust any character in particular, despite being invested in each of them.
There is the story of a young girl who pines for the security and stability of her classmates, making excuses to simply step into their homes for a moment and away from her life. She is repeatedly subjected to sexual abuse by her school bus driver, but, in her eyes, he at least pays attention to her. In this, as in other stories, Mitchell shows how open spaces, country roads and small town familiarity can conceal as much as they expose.
These are the stories of places and people whose sense of longing and tragedy hangs with the reader long after setting the book down. They’re united in their portrayal of the Ozarks as home to a growing crime culture that feels remarkably isolated from the world outside. Rather than cloying odes to rurality as simple or insulated, in this collection, readers will encounter a vision of the Ozarks as brooding and dynamic, created incrementally by the seemingly innocuous decisions made by people just trying to survive in a place defined by its natural wildness and economic abandonment.
The stories are undeniably specific, grounded in descriptions of towns and landscapes and local customs that will make the region feel intimately familiar even to readers who do not call the lower Midwest home. The characters are similarly indelible, entangled with one another.
Mitchell is an eighth-generation native of southern Missouri, where she still maintains a small farm on her family’s land. No doubt this is the reason for her impeccable dialogue, which is among the greatest achievements of the collection. Readers will find it irresistible to repeat passages throughout the collection out loud because they so deftly capture the sound of the Ozarks, bringing the characters to life beyond the page.
While Mitchell is primarily concerned with exploring the darker and more twisted elements of Ozark life and culture, her stories never reveal a disdain for, or even a total disenchantment with, the place or its people. On the contrary, they are thoughtfully and lovingly concocted with great attention and intimate knowledge that will leave readers grateful and eager to hear more.