Jessica Roeder’s chapbook, Staircases Will Outnumber Us, requires much more from the reader than simply enjoying a beautifully written narrative. Throughout her compilation of twenty-one pieces of flash fiction, Roeder creates a world in which we find a blend of fairy tale and cult-like activity. We watch our narrator live among her nameless “sisters” in a treeless forest, where they bear children and build staircases made from stumps, always awaiting the daily return of their “father.” The reader is forced to discover what the treeless forest represents, and thus, the meaning of everything that follows.
Although we are told in the book’s online synopsis that “One thing’s for certain: we are in America,” there is nothing that makes it certain other than the appearance of sparklers in a chapter titled “Fourth” (representing the 4th of July). One could weakly argue that the “father” (a self-proclaimed “god of war” and “god of reason”) could depict our current president, but the sisters are not relatable enough to portray the rest of society as a whole. Then there is the sun, who, although mentioned several times, still withholds its ambiguous purpose. The synopsis gives an obligation to view the chapbook as political satire, thus biasing the natural apprehension of the reader. To be put simply: It cheated.
The narrator describes how their father forms a daily habit, but the sisters have as well. The staircases they build only lead up and down, making it clear that, despite being only an earshot away from town, there is no life for them outside of the forest. They never are given opportunities to grow beyond their sisterhood. If searching for political parallelism, one could compare their situation to the many racial and religious groups that remain oppressed by society and the government. Though the sisters’ spirits become uplifted when they are taken, by their father, out of the gravel and into the grass, they later can’t recall what it is he does to them. It is clear that they repress their bad experiences, similar to people who suffered from childhood trauma and repress their memories. Roeder does an excellent job of instilling the proper amount of discomfort to keep the pages turning.
In oppressed communities, the acceptance of their given fate ingrains an internal indignation. Therefore, they prevent their own children from having high expectations of happiness. We find an example of this in Roeder’s chapbook when a sister washes her baby’s mouth with soap after he is caught smiling at the melodious chirping of a bird. As a form of protection, punishment is served on those who express satisfaction with life experiences. The sisters are aware that a bird will never stay in a forest without trees. Loving the bird will only cause heartache in the future. Moments of happiness are never more than that—a moment. Roeder skillfully uses symbols throughout Staircases to reflect the daughter’s perspective and feelings.
Though the sisters accept their reality, that does stop the natural desire for rebellion. When they are assigned to braid ropes, they imagine looping one around their father’s neck. The narrator even decides to try and escape, but her life experiences exhibits fear of accomplishing this task. Often, when a member of the oppressed builds the courage to try and step outside their community, the prejudices of the majority hinders their acceptance and ability to welcome the foreigner.This results in the foreigner feeling isolated and wanting to return back home, even if that home is, itself, a prison. Those who personally have never experienced this rejection might find it hard to see and understand it in Roeder’s writing.
Staircases Will Outnumber Us concludes with showing the influence of a power in numbers. Though one might not have the strength to move forward alone, together, they can intimidate or make a difference. Whether the oppressed decide to build a staircase that actually leads to a destination (hint, hint), or unite in their efforts to confront those who hold prejudices against them, they may be able to change their reality. It appears that their lack of individuality, surprisingly, is a strength. Nothing is promised. This message, however, takes multiple reads to digest, and without the online synopsis available, the message might be entirely lost. The reader must search externally for meaning rather than finding it within the text, which shouldn't be the case.