You Might Forget the Sky Was Ever Blue, by Michael Chin. Duck Lake Books, September 2019. 136 pages. $16.99, paper.
The characters in Michael Chin’s debut short story collection, You Might Forget the Sky Was Ever Blue, are figuring out how to be in the world with others and themselves. Many of these characters’ lives are full of trauma and turmoil and the best they hope for is easier times in the future. Chin’s stories show a fascinating mix of relationships at different ages, and these stories show, sometimes in graphic detail, how we hurt each other and ourselves but in turn, how much we need each other.
In blunt and plain language, Chin does not shy away from the most difficult and shameful parts of relationships between friends, lovers, siblings, and parents and children. There’s no flowery language or lyrical descriptions and it makes these stories even more powerful and to the point. At times uncomfortable, these stories twist the heart and force you to bear witness to the hurt. You’ll long for imagined better days along with these characters. You’ll have to work to find the hope in these stories, but it is there—in a line, an interaction, a sight set on the future.
Chin captures particularly well how hard it is to be an adolescent when trying to figure out one’s identity as well as forming relationships with others. It is startling to see how easily some of these characters use violence and manipulation to gain control in relationships. Several stories also capture the mix of joy and failure of being a parent including stories where a boy is raised to believe Hulk Hogan is his father and another of a man growing up and having children.
While the collection addresses similar themes, and some take place in the same fictional place, Shermantown, in New York, the characters in each of the stories are unique and surprising. In one, a woman separates from her husband and goes back to live with her mother who has developed a nightly habit of yelling at imaginary people that have wronged her. In another, a sister and brother play a game that has after-effects into adulthood. And in another, a gay couple hosts a radio show in a small town while trying to keep their relationship hidden.
“Prophecy” kicks off the collection and is about an elementary school teacher dealing with the 2016 election, the threat of school shootings, and a news cycle that makes every day feel like the end of the world. The story is told in fragments and the structure highlights how social media can change our perception of reality and ramp up tensions and the many things pulling at our attention daily. This story captures a feeling that many probably have right now, that the end of the world seems imminent daily but also that despite it all, the world will go on forever:
That there’s no one road to the apocalypse that we need to turn off from. It’s a network of interlocking highways, every one of them packed, promising accidents. All of this on the prayer that some of us might keep going. The kids I lecture five days a week might have a chance to make better decisions. Or at least live to my age. That they won’t be the ones to drive this whole planet all the way into the ground.
In “Better,” Chin uses a similarly fragmented structure to show snapshots of a man’s life from childhood to old age allowing the story to span an entire lifetime in just a few pages. Throughout the collection are shorter pieces of flash fiction that are no less hard-hitting than Chin’s longer work and are short sparks that capture the overall theme of the collection distilled down into smaller moments.
Three of the strongest stories in the collection are connected. The first two stories that feature Cal, “The End of the World,” and “You Might Forget the Sky Was Ever Blue,” appear back to back when Cal is in high school. “The End of the World” explores the complex relationship between two adolescent boys trying to understand their sexuality and contains a scene of sexual trauma that is so visceral and gut-wrenching, you’ll almost be unable to move forward. “You Might Forget the Sky Was Ever Blue” opens following that incident when the two boys are forced to wrestle in gym class, prompting Cal to report the sexual assault to a guidance counselor and the story deals with the aftermath. The collection wraps up with the third story, “Otters,” which revisits Cal later in life. What Chin shows us in “Otters” is how the past lingers and how it continues to haunt Cal later in life but doesn’t overtake him. It is a powerful trio of stories the brings forth the themes of longing for connection, violence, sexuality, and finding a voice in the world that reverberate through the whole collection. In the title story, we see Cal he was driving around in the pitch dark, trying to find his way, wondering if better times are ahead. “Otters” provides a glimpse of an answer to how we move forward after all the hurt piled on us by each other and ourselves.
Michael Chin’s strong debut collection, You Might Forget the Sky Was Ever Blue, will challenge you to empathize with a diverse set of characters as they navigate through complex relationships in this compelling collection.
Emily Webber’s writing has appeared in The Writer magazine, the Ploughshares Blog, Five Points, Maudlin House, Brevity, and Slip Lip Magazine. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. Find more at emilyannwebber.com and on Twitter @emilyannwebber.