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Shelter Half by Carol Bly

Shelter Half

by Carol Bly

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I read Carol Bly's first book, a collection of essays called LETTERS FROM THE COUNTRTY a few years ago. I was so impressed by her writing that I soon ordered two of her books of fiction. I finally got around to reading one of them this week. SHELTER HALF was just so damn good I read the whole thing in just a couple sittings over a couple days time. Bly, who lived most of her life in the small towns of northern Minnesota, knows the area like the back of her hand. She creates characters that seem so real, you'd swear you knew these people somewhere. She's got down the close-to-the-chest self-effacing attitudes and speech patterns of the region. I kept trying to think where have I heard this kind of stuff before. All I could come up with was the film FARGO and Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" and its archetypal village of Lake Woebegone. Except Bly's story never really descends to outright comedy or farce. It's pretty damn serious in fact. It begins as a kind of murder mystery when an unidentified body is found in a ditch just outside of the village of St. Fursey. The body keeps coming up throughout the novel, but it's not the main focus or thrust of the story. The story is really all about the town and the various 'characters' that people it, from the wealthy patron and third generation of a founding family; to the Episcopal priest (a young woman) who doesn't believe in God); a very practical and pragmatic Bishop who comes to call; a young woman whose husband thoughtlessly allowed their infant son to drown; a former German soldier who fought on the other side in WWII, now a strawberry farmer; a middle-aged woman who bartends at the VFW and loves the casino slots; a car dealer who's just learned he has cancer; a cleaning woman who is habitually battered by her no-good husband ... Ah well, there are a LOT of different characters, and every one gets his/her own chapter, and gradually you see how they all fit together in the microcosmic world of St. Fursey, a town of around a thousand souls.

The storytelling, the writing, the characters, the dialogue - all of it is simply superb. I mean I loved this book! Until the very end. There didn't seem to be one, an ending, I mean. It just seemed to stop. Things didn't get resolved. It was just suddenly done. I tried to see if there was a stuck page or something I'd missed, but nope. It just stopped. I do know that SHELTER HALF was Bly's last book, and her only novel, that she was working on it when she died in 2007 from ovarian cancer. It was published posthumously the following year. I have to guess that she didn't have time to properly finish it. But even so, I was just blown away by her skills as a writer and spinner of tales. I do have another of her books, MY LORD BAG OF RICE: NEW AND COLLECTED STORES , which I plan to read soon. This one? Despite it strangely abrupt ending I will recommend it anyway. The characters are simply outstanding! ( )
  TimBazzett | Oct 16, 2014 |
For many years American infantrymen were issued a "shelter half," which was half of a pup tent. At the end of a day, each soldier had to join up with a buddy so that the two of them could attach their shelter halves and thereby share a single tent. This image sets the theme of cooperation and caring that runs through Carol Bly's only novel, Shelter Half, finished just before her death from cancer in December of 2007. Bly is well-known in Minnesota as a short story writer, essayist, teacher and social worker, and to her followers it is no surprise that her novel is a good one.

Shelter Half is a portrait of life in a small town in Northern Minnesota. It is incidentally the story of a murder discovered on its opening page, but it is primarily about people failing or succeeding to live decently with one another. We see the life of the town through the eyes of a number of representative characters, the cop and the rector, the town bully and the town doctor, and a marvelously realized do-gooder who only in the end realizes that he has not done good at all. Bly imagines her world not just once, but as it exists in the minds of each of these characters. The different points of view are held together by the question of the murder, and by other recurring events and projects within the town. This is a novel of great craft and great moral imagination.

Despite the seriousness of Bly's intentions, she is no stranger to wit and humor, as when she describes the woman whose "motionless eyes were like the gun and cannon muzzles of a tank still pointed at you well after its captain or crew had died inside." Or when she says of a certain lying low-life that "his brain-dead waste ran out of his mouth like bad water from a culvert." And many of her chapters are nearly small stories in themselves, with ironic reversals culminating in a rearrangement of a character's attitudes or knowledge.

The novel's most powerful message is that we must recognize evil and act against it if we are to care for one another. Tremendous empathy and moral purpose, not to mention craft and wit, went into this book, and one can only regret that Bly did not turn to novel writing sooner in her life. It is no surprise to her fans that her novel is good, but just how good could not have been anticipated. At a recent memorial event, someone who knew her said that she respected the novel form so much that she hesitated to give it a try. Her hesitation is a loss, but this one, final achievement of her life is a great gift. Shelter Half is published in Duluth, MN by Holy Cow! Press. ( )
  BHenricksen | Nov 15, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0977945863, Paperback)

"The real clue to this mystery lies in its title, referring to the half-tent an American infantryman once carried with him to the battlefield, and buttoned to someone else's half for mutual protection: a covert metaphor provisioned with foregiveness and trust."--O, The Oprah Magazine

“Does loving-kindness to friends, family, town, and church cover your complicity in . . . distant wrongs? Carol Bly . . . is fully responsive to the evils done in our name and with our tacit consent.”—Tobias Wolff , in the introduction to My Lord Bag of Rice: New and Selected Stories

“What the reader will remember is Carol Bly’s spiritual and moral intelligence as glimpsed through the valor of these vibrant characters.”—Tess Gallagher, The New York Times Book Review

A young woman’s body lay undisturbed for a week in mid-November.

So begins Shelter Half, a novel about a few people in a northern Minnesota town. Some of them—the town cop, the doctor, and a young couple in love—are smart enough to recognize cruelty that comes at them from huge organizations far outside the town limits. They are not chicken. They don’t duck. If their nation and their world look grisly, they still do what they can for love and justice. They look out for one another. In the end, a retired US Brigadier General brings them a surprise about one of their best-loved townspeople.

Carol Bly (1930-2007) is the author of Letters from the Country, The Tomcat’s Wife, My Lord Bag of Rice: New and Selected Stories, and Changing the Bully Who Rules the World. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories; several Pushcart Collections, including the twenty-five-year anniversary edition; The New Yorker; Ploughshares; Glimmer Train (May 2008); and other journals. She lived in St. Paul and Sturgeon Lake, Minnesota. Shelter Half is Carol Bly's first and only published novel.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:42 -0400)

An investigation into the murder of young woman whose body is found outside the small town of St. Fursey exposes the failings and foibles of the town's residents.

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