Jenn Ashton’s short stories are peopled with humble and forward-leaning characters, the collection aptly called People Like Frank.
Like many avid readers, I enjoy a good and satisfying dive into dark waters. I regularly embrace contradictions, twists and moral ambiguity. So it was completely unexpected for me to find myself quite simply relieved by the optimism in this collection. People Like Frank felt like a balm, particularly coming as it did during violent social unrest and a pandemic.
Each story in the collection is closely aligned to a singular view, carefully drawn and made credible by intimate observations. Many of the characters are solitary, their worlds conscribed, and Ashton applies a sympathetic but hyper-focused lens to their habits, their thoughts, the details of their daily lives.
In “Nest”, the lead story, a Goodwill employee named Francine, “who knows a bit about abandonment”, makes a discovery of what strikes her as a special item. As she dedicates herself to its reinstatement, we are uncomfortably aware that we expected less from her. We are astonished by our misconceptions about people like Francine – humbled by her sense of mission, her resourcefulness. (Would I go to such lengths, I wondered?)
“She enjoyed the Christmas morning feeling of opening a box with no idea what was inside of it, like it was a gift just for her. Sometimes, when she was done, she would mouth the words ‘thankyou’ as if the giver was in the room.”
Never too sweet or patronizing, Ashton’s descriptions are precise without being obvious and she doesn’t impose herself on the voices of her characters. The writing is direct and true making it a pleasure to read. In “Pee”, a woman who has recently suffered an immobilizing stroke tries to navigate her way to the bathroom when her caregiver fails to show. “Her plan, now that she had decided to do it, involved a number of steps, a number of small perfect movements, that would see her come off the bed gracefully and make her way to the bathroom without much effort at all.”
An appreciation for perseverance runs through the collection, and the reader has the sense that the characters value their own lives, no matter how insignificant or unimportant they may seem to others. There is a wakefulness to small experience, a curiosity, a delight. There are gratitude and a celebration of effort. I particularly loved the inclusion of Ashton’s drawings which are whimsical, poignant and funny.
I encountered a great deal of kindness in People Like Frank. As I finished the final line of the last story, I recalled thinking “we need more of these.”