Caitlin Vance’s debut short story collection simultaneously stuns and alarms audiences. The Paper Garden’s stories are separate pieces of fiction that instantly draw the reader into their unique and memorable world. The stories range from children’s experiences comprehending the world around them, realistic queer romances, reimagined biblical passages, and stories blanketed in a fresh take on mental illnesses. Where Vance truly shines is utilizing her obscure yet easily understood metaphors, and her ability to transform her character’s voices into meaning that embodies each reader's unique circumstance. Regardless of some of Vance’s collection being centered in a fantastical version of reality, she also utilizes her writing to make light of undeniable truths about religion, relationships, gender, love, and societal norms. What Vance is truly putting forth through her writing is the idea that nothing should be taken at face value, and everything should be questioned for its supposed authority and validity.
In “Tulips,” the young narrator, Saige, is freshly moved into her grandmother’s house with her mother after her father left. A neighbor, Scarlette, takes a keen interest in Saige inviting her to bible study. Saige doesn’t understand why her mother will not allow her to attend regardless of their differing religious beliefs. When Saige decides to take matters into her own hands by going to bible study, she discovers that her seemingly friendly neighbor has been making shrines in her liking.
Despite her terror, Saige thinks, “Although Scarlette was strange and scary, I had to wonder what my life would have been like if I was Scarlette’s daughter instead of my mother’s. Probably it would have been part good and part bad, just like people were part good and part bad, and so was everything. I wondered if this included God.” Throughout the story, Vance is affirming that young children should not be as credulous when it comes to faith and its inherent impacts on development. This is not to say that Vance discounts or rejects religion all together, she is merely proposing that we teach children that not every aspect of religion should be followed so directly. Instead, we should examine what we find valuable, and form our ideals based on these findings.
In a similar vein, the story “The Miraculous Virgin Mary” takes the reader through a reimagined version of when the biblical Mary first found out she would be carrying the son of God. The 12-year-old narrator experiences immense fear and anger towards her forthcoming pregnancy. She finds herself especially enraged that she had no say in the matter of her own body--yet the angel reminds her that the Lord is not someone who you would want to anger. When the time for the delivery comes, an angel appears to guide her through the process of labor. Mary worries that the angel will discard her when the baby arrives to which the angel responds, “Oh, Mary. The Catholics won’t forget you. Thousands of years from now, they’ll still put your face on candles they light while making wishes. The Protestants, will sort of forget about you, though, I guess that’s true. Actually, what’s interesting is, there will be more about you in the Quran than the Bible.” After Jesus is born, Mary shares with Joseph her frustrations over this unexpected baby. When Joseph disagrees with her viewpoint, Mary leaves him, and Jesus in the middle night to start a new life.
The highlight of this retelling is how Vance gives Mary agency at a humanistic level instead of how she is commonly written about—as a prop or vessel. Vance also highlights how many religions have similar elements, yet believers of differing faiths seem to only see the differences. Mary questioning God’s authority just to be reminded that God is all powerful speaks to the pressure for followers to show unwavering obedience to God. Vance reminds us in the ending scene that regardless of this pressure, those who believe in faith should not be afraid of being divinely smited when mistakes occur, as we are all humans with flaws and wants.
Another interesting element shown through this retelling is the idea of women not having a choice or autonomy over their own bodies. Vance shows, through this story, what has been already occurring all over the world at systemic levels with issues such as arranged marriages, lack of accessible birth control, and abortion laws.
The stories in The Paper Garden are designed with specific intent and heavy empathy for all characters involved—even the ones readers initially don’t suspect. Vance encourages her readers to search for the inconsistencies of stories commonly told and redefine their meanings.These stories may speak to you differently than they have to me. That is the beauty of Caitlin Vance—everything is open to your own perception, and the dance of interpretation will result in robust discussion among her readers.