Please Find Us by Wendy Oleson / Gertrude Press / 47 pages / 2017
Please Find Us contains thirteen stories of survival. In the fifty-page chapbook, Oleson’s carefully crafted characters struggle to understand their places in the world.
They find themselves in a variety of situations (mourning the loss of loved ones, ostracized from society, coping with dysfunctional relationships) and experience a wide range of emotions (grief, fear, guilt, stress, anger). Though the characters’ experiences are remarkably diverse, they are unified by their hope to be found, as the chapbook’s title suggests.
In “The Snow Children,” Oleson tells the story of a young girl named Sarah who is struggling to understand the tragic death of one of her classmates. Oleson’s juxtaposition of young protagonist and adult topic reveals that age does not equate to the ability to comprehend death. Throughout the story, Sarah’s elders flounder just as much as young Sarah does. Unable to find solace in her existing relationships, Sarah embraces the mysterious children she sees from the window. Desperate to be found, she wonders and watches:
“Did the children know her name? Even through the shadows of the trees, Sarah saw a child approaching the tiny window. She couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl, but maybe that didn’t matter, like with the frozen squirrel. It wasn’t a boy or a girl. Just a friend.”
The idea of isolation is not exclusive to “The Snow Children.” Throughout the rest of the chapbook, the theme of isolation exists in varying degrees. “Brother” and “Sister” capture the vulnerability caused by being abandoned by a sibling. “We Used to Play at Kmart” and “Little House, 1979” tell of children uprooted from their previously happy lives and struggling to connect in their new situations. “Jane” narrates a neighborhood hamster race while revealing the ostracism of a nine-year-old named Jennifer. In “When a Child Dies (Bear It Away),” a family wrestles with blame, trying to understand why their son has drowned. The narrator of “The Slide” ponders the impact isolation had on her friend, wondering if she is somehow to blame for that friend’s recent suicide. “Suffocate” describes the dissolve of a relationship through the image of a slow-spreading, unwanted oil. In the nine-vignette series, the oil takes on a variety of meanings, from scandalous to miraculous.
This idea of oil—one that is not easily washed away—serves as an analogy for the impact of Oleson’s writing. The stories told in her chapbook linger in the mind of the reader, not easily washed away by everyday events. The more Oleson’s stories are pondered, the more meaning readers can find in them. In “Record From A Farmhouse,” Oleson depicts a boy obsessively cutting out snowflakes. He knows the end of the world is imminent. In the distance, he can see an ever-approaching, vibrantly-colored tidal wave. His father, unable to see the wave, focuses on the snowflakes his son is cutting, commenting on their shapes and symmetry. Oblivious to their impending death, the boy’s father tells him stories about the past. The various vivid details included in this story—the “brittle plastic scissors” used to cut snowflakes, the “sickly triangles” left as scraps from the son’s art project, the “raw yolk” colored tidal wave—create a mysterious and believable world for readers to make sense of. A possible interpretation of this story is as a warning against focusing so intensely on perfection and the past that we do not see the present. Other readers could interpret this story differently. It is this possibility—of finding many different, beautiful, and significant interpretations—that makes Please Find Us such a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.