Extinction: Reflecting on “The Golden Toad” by Karen Sandstrom

While flipping through a copy of Artful Dodge 44/45, the title of this piece immediately jumped out at me. Golden toads, I thought, I know those animals. My junior year of high school, I spent ten days at a scientific research base near Monteverde, Costa Rica, in a place called “The Children’s Eternal Rainforest.” Travelling with my classmates and teacher, going on daily hikes, and conducting my own soil analysis certainly created a rewarding experience. Since my return, I have always felt a special connection to the place. So when I saw the title of Karen Sandstrom’s prose piece, I was invested immediately.

The piece depicts a young couple whose marriage is tested when the narrator finds out that her husband is in love with his business partner, a man named Mel. She reads about the plight of the golden toad in a magazine and accompanies her husband on his business trip to Costa Rica. Her obsession with the golden toad and her frustration and fury at her husband drive the plot of the narrative towards the wife’s ultimate realization that not only is her marriage destroyed, but so is the habitat of the golden toad.

I found myself identifying strongly with the narrator throughout this piece, specifically with her feelings about the golden toad. In fact, her thoughts are eerily similar to mine when I found out that the golden toad was extinct. “Not all change is bad. Not all death is tragic. I couldn’t care less about the extinction of the dodos. It happened so long ago, anyway,” she says. “The toads are another matter.” I can vividly recall sitting in my classroom in high school, staring at my teacher as she told us that the golden toad was going to vanish off this earth during our lifetime, if it wasn’t already gone. The extinction of animals had always seemed like a distant concept to me. I knew that the dodo bird had vanished, and obviously the dinosaurs died off millions of years ago. Those were the two creatures my mind conjured up when I thought of the word extinction. I could not comprehend that the adorable yellow toad on the screen in front of me was suddenly going to vanish. How could that possibly happen?

“The Golden Toad” is a compelling narrative that addresses not only questions of loyalty and love in a marriage, but our complex and toxic relationship with our natural environment. At the story’s close, the narrator is determined to save the golden toad. She describes how she is going to dig a pond and create a habitat for them where they will be safe and protected. As someone who has walked through the “familiar and terribly foreign” landscape of the Costa Rican rainforest, I empathize with her overwhelming desire to rescue these creatures from extinction. After all, the golden toad was a physical surety that the world was in balance and that “the future was assured.” Their death is another poignant reminder of the destructive power that humans can wield on this planet.

 

—Megan Murphy, Assistant Editor

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The Art of Living Backwards

Dreams, wishful thinking, and regrets plague us constantly, keeping us from ever fully living in the present. I know that I would like to be little again, dancing in the aisle at baseball games and playing The Price is Right with my stuffed animals. I wish I could take back the time I gave up playing piano for months so I could run cross country, that I could re-say goodbyes with the words I thought up afterwards.  In Artful Dodge 52/53, Michael Lee says the same with the first line of his short narrative, “Teacher Zhang and Teacher Hua.”  “I wish,” he begins, “that I could tell the story of Teacher Zhang and Teacher Hua backwards,” which he then proceeds to do, rewinding the tape of their lives with words.

The story proceeds from the “end,” where the narrator and Teacher Zhang stand in Teacher Zhang’s “hovel,” but slowly things begin to change.  Teacher Hua, who died from cancer, comes back to life, “taking her first breath.”  Some things are gained and others lost, old loves are never met and forgotten, cats shrink into kittens.  Lee does a wonderful job presenting the teachers’ lives, unraveling the thread of time like a Christmas present.  What I find the most interesting about this piece is that it does not end at the “beginning,” but thousands of years before, a reminder that we truly begin years before our births.  Still, all things are a cycle, whether backwards or forwards.  We do not exist, we exist, and then we do not exist again.  Birth to death, death to birth, we are always looking back.

 

—Holly Engel, Assistant Editor

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Hats Off to Danny Caine

Wooster alum and poet Danny Caine recently appeared on the radio program hosted by David Folkenflik, On Point, discussing his favorite books of the year. He was joined by Amanda Nelson and Clay Smith. You can listen to the program, and learn more about the guests here.

I met Danny when I was still in high school, attending a summer writing workshop at John Carroll University. I was inspired by Danny’s love of writing, and his dedication to helping young writer’s succeed. When I told him I was considering the College of Wooster for college, he was thrilled, and told me that he had conducted a creative senior independent study during his time at Wooster.

With the guidance of Daniel Bourne, Artful Dodge’s founder and editor, Danny completed his senior independent study at the College of Wooster. Today, he is the proud owner of Raven Books, an independent bookstore in Kansas. You can learn more about the great work of his bookstore here.

Danny also has a new book of poems, Continental Breakfast, being released by Mason Jar Press in the coming months. Keep an eye out for his work!

On behalf of everyone at Artful Dodge, congratulations Danny on all of your accomplishments!

 

-Megan Murphy, Assistant Editor

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Transforming the Ordinary: Reflecting on “More Stories About Restaurants” by Sona Tazin

I enjoy reading fantasy. I like to be transported into other worlds, and I like stories with adventure and magic. I like experiencing other people’s lives in fiction, living through the characters a life I can never experience myself. It is a rare occasion when I pick up a novel that lacks some kind of fantastical element. However, I think I sometimes forget that the ordinary can be just as impactful and extraordinary as fantasy.

“More Stories About Restaurants,” found in Artful Dodge 14/15, is a collection of vignettes describing the life of someone who works in a restaurant, and it reminded me that there is magic in “ordinary” fiction. It is simple, raw, and honest, and it almost made me cry. I felt so desperately for the narrator, her struggles with her life’s direction, her desire to be included, the small community she formed at the restaurant. This is a story that celebrates the hardships of ordinary life and presents those hardships in a way that is honest and heavy with emotion. It is truly authentic. I highly recommend picking up a copy of Artful Dodge 14/15 and giving this story a chance. It is not long, but it conveys so much in just a few pages. As someone who reads almost exclusively fantasy, trust me when I tell you that this unique story has its own kind of magic.

 

—Megan Murphy, Assistant Editor

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Believe it or Not

Superstition is as much a part of life as eating cereal for breakfast, whether we want to admit it or not. Instead of throwing people in ponds to see if they’re witches or crossing ourselves as we pass by graveyards at night, we confront our superstitions more subtly. Most everyone I know has had a “lucky” object at some point in their life, and many people still “knock on wood” to cancel out words of bad luck. I suppose I’ve always been a little more superstitious than my peers, the first to throw spilled salt over my shoulder and the last to look in a mirror in the dark. I know that saying “rabbits rabbits rabbits” as soon as I wake up on the first of the month is supposed to bring me money, accidentally killing a bird is a bad omen, and saying the name of the Scottish play while in production will bring woe to the theatre. Well, I suppose I don’t really know if adhering to superstition will do anything at all. That seems to be the grey area for all of us; we don’t want to risk the seven years of bad luck from breaking a mirror, and if a four-leaf-clover can really help us, then there’s no harm in carrying one around.

A story in Artful Dodge 42/43, “Los Gatos Bus,” explores another kind of superstition: the sight, or a sixth sense. In this story by Kathryne Kulpa, a husband and wife sitting at a bus stop have an interesting conversation with a batty old woman who seems to have intuitions about them. When the wife goes to make a phone call, the old woman confides in the husband that his wife has “the black” on her and does not have long to live. This leads the husband and the reader to wonder if the woman is making things up or if her words have some sense. Can there be sense in superstition? Overall, the story provides a subtle but engaging commentary on the superstitions and beliefs we all hold, whether we’d like to admit them or not, and how we face them silently, always questioning the possibility that anything is possible.

—Holly Engel, Assistant Editor

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Sisters and Worms: Reflecting on “Tent Worms” by Kathyrn Youther

I have never liked bugs. I am frightened by their segmented bodies, their legs, and their beady eyes, the way they have survived for millions of years and how they will probably still call Earth home long after humans have disappeared. Insects and creepy-crawly creatures, however, have always fascinated my twin. When we were little, we would spend countless hours running through the woods behind my house, and Colleen was always stopping to pick up the worms writhing in the dirt at our feet or pointing out the water striders racing across the surface of the creek. Once, we ran into a group of silk worms. I was horrified. I can still remember how unnatural the threads of their silk felt against my fingers, the contortions of their rubbery bodies twisting through the air, swinging from the tree branches like grotesque trapeze artists. However, they enraptured Colleen. This type of relationship between siblings, worms, and bugs is a prominent plot line in a short prose piece found in Artful Dodge 32/33.

            “Tent Worms” by Kathyrn Youther is, on the surface, the story of a family and their tent worm problem, but it focuses more specifically on the relationship between two characters: the narrator, Lizzy, and her sister Ruth. What I found most intriguing and haunting about this story was the connection between the tent worms and Ruth. Her character’s continual association with the wriggling worms was both disturbing and intriguing to me, reminding me of my own twin. A recurring plot point in the story is that Ruth loves to dance, just like the “twisting” tent worms. This reminded me of the wriggling silk worms my twin and I found. I can clearly remember Colleen pointing to them and exclaiming, “Aren’t they so cool!?” while I shivered in open disgust. In “Tent Worms,” Lizzy is haunted by the images of the “twisting” worms and their connection to her sister, just as I was horrified of the silk worms weaving their webs. I think it is fascinating that I find such ordinary creatures so disturbing while writers like Kathyrn Youther can wind them into a narrative as haunting and compelling as “Tent Worms.”

 

—Megan Murphy, Assistant Editor

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Dodge Contributor Katherine Zlabek Wins Prestigious Writing Prize

The Dodge would like to congratulate Katherine Zlabek, who contributed the story “Hunting the Rut” to Dodge 52/53 a few years ago, for winning the 2018 Non/Fiction Collection Prize in January of this year. This annual award presented by an Ohio State University Press publication, the Journal, is not only a cash prize, but the publication of the writer’s collection of short stories and/or essays. Katherine’s story collection, When, is due for publication in fall 2019.

If you are interested in learning more about Katherine and her work, check out her website.  There, you’ll be able to see news and a list of some of her other publications.

 

—Holly Engel, Assistant Editor

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