A Hero’s Journey: A Review of Into the Wilderness
Literary Mama readers will remember David Harris Ebenbach’s short story “Hungry to Eat,” first published on Literary Mama in June 2012 and now included in Ebenbach’s second collection of short fiction, [booklink isbn=”093184665X” title=”Into the Wilderness”].
In “Hungry to Eat,” an out-of-work father nourishes his heartbroken son by taking him to an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant, despite the son’s pleas that he’s not very hungry. “Sometimes eating something gets a person hungry to eat,” the father says, offering the best advice he can under the circumstances. Father and son both gorge on plates of scalloped potatoes, meatloaf, and baked beans and finish with desserts they can barely stomach. By the story’s end, the reader understands that the sustenance the father offered his son is nothing more or less than what he needed himself.
Such powerful exchanges fill Ebenbach’s collection. He shows us characters who find one another out of necessity, by chance, and — most important of all — through the bonds of parenthood and love. Like the father and son in “Hungry to Eat,” Ebenbach’s characters are forlorn but hopeful, ready to give up but equally eager to choose hope, even when hope is mounds of all-you-can-eat mashed potatoes and key lime pie.
Many stories in [booklink isbn=”093184665X” title=”Into the Wilderness”] show fathers doing the best they can, muddling through different stages of parenthood and childhood. In “Jewish Day,” a divorced dad takes his two children to Shea Stadium to watch a baseball game themed for Jewish pride. While the father hopes to create a bonding moment between himself, his son, and his daughter, the experience generates even further alienation. His daughter asks, “What’s the point of it?” He can only respond:
“It’s fun. Look at all these Jewish people who are happy about it.” He loosely indicated the crowd. “I think it’s fun.”
As the game continues, the daughter, like the reader, senses that no amount of convincing will make this outing “fun,” and the father is left, after numerous challenges to his authority, with a simple, profound realization: “He saw that he was still their father, even if the best evidence of that was that they were grudgingly ready to take their orders.” Sometimes, Ebenbach reminds us, a simple reinforcement of the parental role is enough, despite all the complications, frustrations, and alienation that may come with the job.
Other pieces in the collection show Ebenbach’s unique talent for inhabiting a female point of view, and understanding the complex emotions of motherhood. A powerful quartet of stories titled “Judith I” to “Judith IV” depicts the evolution of a young single mother from unexpected pregnancy, through parenting an infant who does not sleep, to the necessary but fraught process of naming her child according to Jewish tradition. “Right. Motherhood,” she says to herself, “I guess it’s an adjustment.”
When Judith returns from meeting with her rabbi, still completely lost as to how to proceed with the naming ceremony, she looks down at the sleepless infant and whispers, “Who are you, baby?” Surely, most new mothers have asked this question, and, indeed, the moment captures an equally essential truth of new parenthood: Who am I?
The title of Ebenbach’s collection comes from “Judith I: Into the Wilderness,” in which Judith’s parents, visiting to help with the baby, take their leave of her for the night. “They were seeing me in the morning,” Judith tells herself, “but they kissed me like I was going off into the wilderness to find the meaning of life, likely never to return.” Thankfully, Judith does “return.” Just as the father in “Jewish Day” embraces his role as divorced dad, and the father in “Hungry to Eat” overcomes his own personal troubles to feed his son in need, Judith, and other parents in Ebenbach’s book, show readers that the challenges of parenthood may put our backs against the wall and that the struggle to overcome can seem heroic. The stories are powerful for how honestly these parents embark on their missions, for all they learn and share on the way, and for the many truths they bring home from their parent-hero’s journey.