Many of the young female protagonists in Sabrina and Corina, Denver author Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s poised, rich debut story collection, grow up in fractured families—in which one parent leaves, dies or simply fails at the job. But these families’ roots run generations deep in Colorado, and a grandmother often brings stability through her staunch love and practical caregiving, offering simple remedies derived from a Mexican-American or indigenous heritage: garlic for warts, potato slices on temples for headaches, herbs instead of brain-addling fentanyl for the pain of cancer patients, and for “a cold or a broken heart … a warm cup of atole made only with blue corn.”
Although these women demonstrate abundant love, they are far from stereotypical or saccharine characters. One, armed with a gun, defends her home from an intruder, and all of them tell it like is. The grandmother in the title story says her granddaughter’s absentee father “was a nobody—some white guy with a name like a stuffy nose, Stuart or Randall.”
Fajardo-Anstine’s protagonists might struggle to pass their history exams or revert, for a night, to their youthful graffiti days, but they still feel grounded. They may not know exactly where they’re going, but they know who they are and where they belong as surely as they know the traditions that will mark each rite of passage. In the title story, Corina explains, “I had experienced enough Cordova deaths to know one pot was filled with green chili, another with pintos, and the last one with menudo. Deaths, weddings, birthdays—the menu was always the same.” They watch with a kind of astonishment as Denver gentrifies, and neighborhoods known for decades as the Westside or the Northside become the “Highlands.”
“Since the newcomers had started moving to Denver,” Fajardo-Anstine writes, “they’d changed the neighborhood names to fit their needs, to sound less dangerous, maybe less territorial.”
In many of these expertly crafted stories, there’s one woman whose life, or untimely death, serves as a cautionary tale. In the title story, Sabrina is strangled, and her cousin and former best friend, Corina, contemplates her short life and tragic death. Corina wonders why she escaped Sabrina’s fate; was it because she was not as pretty and therefore perhaps not as self-destructive or attractive to dangerous men? “These pretty girls,” the funeral director tells Corina, “they get themselves into such ugly situations.” Corina is determined to buck tradition rather than become yet another victim of the “line of tragedies” so many women in her family endured. “The stories always ended the same, only different girls died, and I didn’t want to hear them anymore,” she decides.
In the haunting “Sisters,” Fajardo-Anstine transports readers to Denver in 1955, where teenage sisters Doty and Tina Lucero live in a duplex off Federal Boulevard. They moved to the city from southern Colorado when their mother took up with an “older Anglo rancher” who gave the girls unwelcome attention. Now they are both working as receptionists, and Tina is determined to marry well to secure her future, while Doty “had no interest in men.” But at a time when men control most aspects of public life, pretty, Patsy Cline-loving Doty struggles to escape a persistent suitor.
In the affecting story “Tomi,” Nicole returns from La Vista Correctional Facility in Pueblo, where she spent time for crashing her car through “an elderly couple’s picture window at four in the morning.” Nicole comes home to the Denver house her brother, Manny, inherited when their father died. Manny’s wife has left him, and his son, Tomi, is adrift—overweight, failing his reading class and spending all his time playing video games. Nicole, who years ago stole money meant for Tomi’s education, unexpectedly becomes a good influence on him, though her brother is the only person who believes she’s a decent person at heart.
In “Ghost Sickness,” Ana is trying to make a better life for herself but is in danger of failing her “History of the American West” class. “If she fails,” Fajardo-Anstine writes, “she’ll lose her scholarship, the displaced fund, given to the grandchildren of Denver residents, mostly Hispano, who once occupied the Westside neighborhood before it was plowed to make way for an urban campus.” Although historical facts elude Ana on the final, a Diné creation story her wayward boyfriend once told her saves the day.
In story after story, characters who are on the verge of slipping into the abyss are saved somehow, mainly by the profound pull of indestructible family ties and shared culture in the form of stories, rituals and remedies. Wealthy newcomers may keep coming to Colorado, Sabrina and Corina suggests, but their money can’t buy the sense of heritage and interconnectedness shared by the Latino and Indigenous residents they’re displacing.
This piece originally appeared in High Country News. Jenny Shank’s novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian and McSweeney’s. She is on the faculty of the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver.
Sabrina and Corina: Stories
By Kali Fajardo-Anstine
224 pages, $26