Megan Goins, Pittsburg State University


When the Maple Tree Explodes is a collection of short stories that focuses on finding, asserting, and living a life of independence in the small Kansas town of Ash Creek. Independence affects and is affected by relationships of all kinds: families, churches, and friendships in a community of 4,000 people. The first story, “When the Maple Tree Explodes,” is about a twelve-year-old girl, Brianna, who discovers she was actually adopted by the man she thought was her biological father. Overhearing the truth starts Brianna’s search for her biological dad. As she enlists the help of her friend, Amber, to meet this man, she discovers that in the world of adult motivations, the only person who can be completely honest with her is herself. “Cheese Fries and A Diamond Ring” focuses on Margot, a bride-to-be, certain about her date, location, and groom, but completely uncertain about marriage and her fiancé’s God. Premarital counseling illuminates Margot’s past and forces her to rethink her views on fundamentalist-Evangelical marriage and the roles people assume when they get married. The last story, “Apartment Barbeque,” is about Paula, working to find herself after intravenous fertility treatments have failed. She looks up from her sorrow only to question how constricting and harmful her environment would have been.

Narrations for these stories are all in first-person because it allows the reader to get into the head of the main character of each story, but that point of view is used differently in each. I chose first-person because it forces the reader to look through the eyes of the main character. Her unique look at her small town, her friends and relations forces her drastic actions.

In the first story, “When the Maple Tree Explodes,” the point of view is of a woman looking back and offering commentary about how she processed the discovery of her adoption. Because the main character, Brianna, is so young and needs time to process the ramifications of the news she’s just discovered, she is, at best, an unreliable narrator. Brianna’s older voice looking back on the event allows the reader to grasp not just young Brianna’s perspective, but the far-reaching ramifications of her actions on the other characters’ lives. Margot in “Cheese Fries and a Diamond Ring” is recent first-person. Because of her shaky and emotional attitude toward romantic relationships, Margot wears a cheerful, confident mask. First person is the best perspective for this situation, it allows the reader to see past Margot’s mask without the third-person narrator making additional judgment calls. This allows the reader to form their own opinions of Margot based on her internal motivation and natural empathetic traits instead of having that connection forced onto the reader. I wrote “Apartment Barbeque,” the recent first-person because of the intimate nature of Paula’s struggle with IVF and infertility. By using first person I am better able to show her isolation from her community, reflecting her own perception of her situation.

These stories are arranged by age. Women face different challenges and different perceptions at different ages, and it was important to me that I show a range of ages and associated difficulties in my stories. Brianna is pre-pubescent, where the development of a womanly figure makes her stand out against the other girls in her class, isolating her, and forcing her to become more adult more quickly. Margot has taken claim of her sexuality and now must wrestle with the morality of enjoying physical pleasure when her fiancé’s church sees her gender as a reason to restrict the roles she can take on in marriage. And Paula, who has been married for several years, is faced with the expectation that her body should be able to grow babies. When it can’t, she struggles with the idea that she is somehow broken. Adding this extra layer to the story gives my characters depth. Outside forces are affecting the main characters perceptions of themselves. When small-town survival is based on the approval of others, these perceptions add to the difficulty these women face in making their decisions.

Setting also adds depth to my stories. My experiences in central, small-town Kansas helped me form the personalities and ideologies for my characters. The town, Ash Creek, where all of the stories take place, only has about 4,000 people in it. Fewer businesses means fewer opportunities for new jobs, new friendships, and new romances. Small towns are very connected communities, meaning that forming and keeping relationships is paramount and breaking them off can be detrimental. Because of this, setting helps motivate my characters to take advantage of options they do have. The physical setting of trees, flowers, weather, and buildings I use primarily to create energy and express my main character’s emotions.

The crux of these stories is when the heroine learns to think and act independently of her sub-culture. This requires her identifying the outside forces and making a conscious, emotional decision. Because I’ve written in first person, and because people do lie to themselves, my choice to use brutal honest language during the internal monologues and dialogue sections of my stories is meant to convey the suddenly undisputed recognition of conflict for my characters. Plain language allows the reader and the heroine to recognize why change is necessary. One of the challenges of first person is voice. In order to make my main character’s voices more believable, I recognize that coming to an understanding often takes a roundabout and rambling path, so I tend to use longer, more complicated sentences and lists to mimic that process.

This collection of stories, by focusing on several characters in one town, shows the intricacy of motivations that can occur among relatively few people. These stories also show isolation despite the strong ties of community and individuals’ dependence on sub-cultures. And the characters in them must decide how lonely they are willing to become in order to protect sense of self.