How Winter Began, Joy Castro’s (author of The Truth Book: A Memoir, Hell or High Water, and Nearer Home; winner of the International Latino Book Award) new collection of short fiction, opens with an act of wildness. Iréne, a young waitress on San Antonio’s Riverwalk, accepts 100 dollars from a table of businessmen to jump into the San Antonio River. She knows the men see her as one of “those crazy big-titty Mexican girls down in San Antone: just like a border town, man, anything for a buck.” But she sees herself as something different: the single mother of an infant girl, navigating the leers of the men and the inevitable disapproval of her mother, just so she can get to the moment when she is alone with her baby:
It would be quiet, then, just me and Marisa. I’d shower and scrub off the scum and toxic waste, soaping and resoaping the nipples to make sure, and I’d put the hundred in the Catholic school jar under the bed and nurse Marisa, the whole time thinking, Who the hell knows anything about me? until we fell asleep on the big bed together.
This beginning establishes in dramatic fashion the concerns that preoccupy Castro throughout How Winter Began. All of the stories in the collection delve into the lives of girls and women, covering a wide range of female experience and embracing characters of many different ages, races, and socioeconomic statuses. Again and again in these stories we see women fighting to define authentic identities for themselves amid the demands of others and the complicating influences of class and society.
Castro brings these women to life with evenhanded believability: a high school teacher from Kansas who uses dead-end affairs to seek relief from her suffocating marriage; a Chicana single mother who hides her identity so she can sell upscale Native American jewelry in the mall; a professor’s widow who fills her days with meticulous gardening and membership in a genteel literary society. No matter where they fall on the spectrums of race and class, Castro writes about her characters with careful attention, exploring their struggles, dramatizing the choices that are and are not open to them, and investing each of them with humanity. Often, she accomplishes this by letting them speak for themselves. The majority of the stories in this collection are written in first person, and Castro demonstrates a knack for capturing the voices of her diverse cast. Whether it’s the frenetic narrator of “Bloody,” who talks directly to the reader and describes a psychotic episode in her past as “the result of just a little ol’ chemical imbalance! Easily remedied with medication! And a three-month stay in a psychiatric hospital!” or the hard-working OB-GYN of “Under Things,” who looks back on the sacrifices she made to build a stable life for herself and observes that “a kind of soft pride had grown in me like a small watered plant,” Castro’s characters gain depth and texture through her use of their varied voices.
The stories in How Winter Began range in length from 15 pages down to a page and a half, and there are many of them. The collection comprises nearly 30 stories, a fact that is both a weakness and a great strength of the book. The large number means that some of the pieces fade from memory and some blend together, but it also allows Castro to explore the plethora of perspectives that lend such richness to the book. When she wants to write about motherhood, for instance, she is able to examine the theme from all sides. There are stories of happy mothers and unhappy mothers, of daughters who struggle to understand their mothers or to define themselves as separate from their mothers; there are stories of single mothers, foster mothers, and aunts who act in the place of mothers. There are women who find deep meaning in motherhood—like Holly in “The Cave,” who looks at the cave paintings at Lascaux with her two-year-old daughter and feels that “the child in her arms was the cave, the mystery of flesh from flesh, the deep complete attunement to the animal beat of another. Primitive. Profound.”—and others for whom motherhood is an unwanted burden. There are mothers of infants, mothers dropping their children off at college, and mothers whose children have left the nest. In the same way, Castro looks at the class divide from both sides, and presents nuanced views of race and femininity. Over the course of the collection, Castro uses this proliferation of characters, circumstances, and situations to provide subtle and multi-faceted takes on the themes that preoccupy her.
The strongest stories in How Winter Began leave powerful impressions that linger long after the stories have been read. “Independence Day,” written with beautiful prose and searing anger, imagines the thoughts of Josefa Juvera Loaiza, a woman hanged in California in 1851 for defending herself against her rapist. “How to Warp Your Kid” covers an entire life in four pages, using humor and well-chosen details to encapsulate the tender relationship of a single mother and the son who forms a “Club to End Cultural Hegemony” at age five, and inspires his mother to buy “the cheerful cookbook: Cooking for One!” when he leaves for college. “How Winter Began” is written in reverse chronological order, a choice that could seem gimmicky, but is instead unforgettable as the story of a girl sexually assaulted at a party moves backwards from horror into innocence. “A Choice I Made” returns us to Iréne, the waitress who plunged into the river in the opening story. Castro gives us glimpses of Iréne at different points in the collection and at different points in her life. At the end of the book, we see her again, not wild, not angry, embodying no one’s vision of her life but her own, poised at the beginning of something new and secure in her own strength at last. She is living, in her words, in “the house of making it up from scratch.”