I confess: I generally prefer the depth of a novel to the quicker pace of short stories. The short story collection The Light, the Dark, and Ember Between proves a delightful read, however, and may make me more likely to opt for short story compilations in the future.
The Light, the Dark, and Ember Between is J.W. Nicklaus’ first volume of published stories. It features fifteen selections centering on various aspects of love, particularly loss and ensuing hopefulness. The stories all have intriguing plots, believable dialogue, and beautifully descriptive (and only occasionally overwritten) prose.
A personal favorite, the bittersweet “Requiem for Linny,” explores the grief a rancher feels after losing his wife. It offers particularly evocative landscape passages:
“The earth rolled with small hills, up and down, the stands of trees along them mimicked their rise and fall. Through the veil of drifting snow the scene took on an almost watercolor feel, the snow muting colors to shades of gray and scenery layered upon itself as if it were designed as a series of huge cardboard cutouts for a stage production.”
A well-written circle of a story, “Broken” begins with Slim’s prophetic words: “Asphalt has a way of taking the beauty and life out of something that, at one time, held meaning to someone.” This provides an apt frame for reporter Dakota Straub’s newspaper story about a special sanitation worker and Dakota’s own recent experiences. Readers quickly get acquainted with and come to care about Slim and Dakota thanks to Nicklaus’s adept character studies.
Also exemplary are “One Washington Diner,” “Emissary”, and “Winter Rose,” all showcasing the author’s ability to rapidly evoke mood and setting. Readers will have to rely on faith, or suspension of hard reality, to completely understand and enjoy “One Washington Diner,” “Emissary,” “Blind,” and “10:18.”
Unfortunately, “Short Attention Span” and “Ten Word Quickie” read like homework assignments for a writing class. They do offer whimsical plays on vocabulary but are not of the same quality as the rest of Nicklaus’ work in The Light.
“In the Name of Love” is the last offering in this compilation. A nonfiction meditation, it does not blend as readily with the stories that precede it, but it does provide an interesting variation on the theme of love. In it, Nicklaus offers an ode to his son, calling for preservation, and love, of both liberty and country.