Winner of the 1996 Drue Heinz Prize for Fiction
“Before I was a writer I was a reader; and reading remains a necessary activity, occupying several joyous hours of every day. I like novels, essays, and biographies; but most of all I like the short story: narrative at its most confiding.
My own work, and particularly the stories in Vaquita, aims at a similar intimacy between writer and reader. My imagined reader wants to know who loves whom, who drinks what, and, mostly, who answers to what summons. Thank Heavens for Spike Lee! Before his movies writers and critics had to natter about moral stances; now I can say with a more tripping tongue that my characters are people in peculiar circumstances aching to Do The Right Thing if only they can figure out what The Right Thing is. If not, they'll at least Do Their Own Thing Right.
And I'm drawn to heat: sweltering Central American cities; a steamy soup kitchen; Jerusalem in midsummer; the rekindled passion of an old historian; the steady fire of terminal pain. I like solitaries, oddities, charlatans, and children. My characters are secretive; in almost every story somebody harbors a hidden love, dread, regret, or the memory of an insult awaiting revenge.
When I stop writing stories I plan to write letters, short and then shorter. My mother could put three sentences onto a postcard and make the recipient think he'd read a novel. I'm working towards a similar compression.”
“Pearlman's imagination is global rather than suburban, and her vision of humanity planetary rather than parochial. In her hands humor and parody focus not on the deterioration of older social values but on the ingenious, creatrix spinning out of new ones. However odd life's individual instances may be, Pearlman honors that instance with truth and mirthful wink, casting on the world a level yet kindly eye. Posellen Brown, judge for the Prize, honors Pearlman's “generous intelligence,” and accurately notes that the stories' characters “represent civilized virtues and civilized vices, and the best and worst of us, only much improved by Pearlman's insight and wit.” Generous intelligence, insight and wit are indeed Pearlman's virtues. And I am charmed, and hard put to discover her vices.”
- Marilyn Krysl, The Jewish Advocate
“One might compare the short-story form to a slalom race: the need to save ground is always pressing. In expert short stories, however, the constraints don't show, and less is more. Such is the case with Edith Pearlman's collection Vaquita.”
The 15 stories have diverse settings: Central American backlands, Jerusalem in midsummer, the MBTA's Red Line and Harvard Square. “I like solitaries, oddities, charlatans and children,” she states. “My characters are secretive; in almost every story somebody harbors a hidden love, dread, regret, or the memory of an insult awaiting revenge.” Seldom does she venture as far as 3,000 words, yet the effect is never elliptical and the characters display a fully realized presence. ”
- Robert Taylor, The Boston Globe
And by the time lunch was over [at Donna's Ladle, a soup kitchen for women], it was time for the visit of the housing advocate (she saw people in Donna's little office) and the nurse (she saw people in one corner of the kitchen, more or less screened off. Bitsy liked to peek). A social worker sometimes dropped by too, a warm-hearted, deep-breasted person whom Donna loved; but her services were rarely used. “They don't trust my kind,” she said without rancor. Meanwhile, Free Food made a delivery, as did Yesterday's Bread. The third staff member, Pamela arrived from one of her mendicant tours with a donated set of restaurant silverware (spoons vanished daily, despite Donna's pleadings) and four folding cots, wonderful for hangovers. Pamela walked in just as Vera, a steady guest, was giving vent to her daily hysterics. The CIA was following her again. They knew her name meant Truth, and they meant to destroy her. Donna sat with Vera for a while, listening; then Pam took over. It was almost three. The volunteers had mopped the dining room and put away the dishes. The women were leaving. Hard to send them out into the slush, but at least it wasn't snowing, and the church insisted on repossessing its basement in the late afternoons. Donna was beginning to clean the kitchen stove when a scream came from the dining room. She bounded out. The scream came from the Puerto Rican girl. She was standing in the center of the dining room. Her sack of belongings was attached to her ankle. Her head was thrown backward, her elbows were raised, her long fingers sought each other in her wealth of hair, and she was shrieking.
They soothed her - Donna, Pam, and Vera. After a while she was again seated, giving them an earful of her woes. How mother beat her. How she ran to Aunt. Aunt's boyfriend a not-nice man. Not an easy country to get along in, this one, if you have no settled home, if you need, oh, thirty, forty thousand to live a decent life. Didn't like her winter assignment, visiting shelters. Would you like such work? She demanded suddenly of Pam. Would you like dragging your body from place to place, lining up for a bed, never able to let your things out of your sight, always afraid of thieves and insults, no way out, no way out... Would you? She was shrieking again.
“I wouldn't like it at all,” said Pam.
The girl looked at Donna next.
“I wouldn't like it at all.”
At Vera, who lived that life.
“Not at all,” said Vera.
And the girl turned regal again. She shouldered her sack and marched out in her handsome black cape, only the men's socks and decaying sandals on her feet indicating that she might not be traveling on the fast track.
From “Donna's Heart”