There is a natural human desire to be extraordinary. People like to be the heroes of their own stories and to achieve that which lets other people see the best parts of themselves. But what happens when they never achieve the extraordinary? What can someone learn from a person whose story is just sad, tragic, or … ordinary?
Gina Oschner strives to answer that question with “People I Wanted to Be,” a collection of 11 short stories that takes readers through the lives of struggling, often broken individuals. Each story touches on different themes, whether they be sadness, loss, reconciliation, or a mixture of them all. Oschner moves through this emotional tapestry with ease, thanks to her touching prose and eye for the original.
One of Oschner’s stories that best emphasizes her focus on theme is the first story in the collection, “Articles of Faith.” She tells the tale of a couple, Evin and Irana, living in Karelia, a Russian region bordering Finland. They suffered from infertility, and now believe they are seeing the ghosts of those three children hiding around their small farm. Immediately, Oschner uses this tale to set a precedent for her Western audiences. She is fond of taking a familiar problem, like a couple being unable to conceive, and setting that problem within a foreign land, like Russia or the Czech Republic. Oschner’s varied, exotic settings let audiences see their everyday problems in a unique way.
While on their farm, Evin and Irana do not speak to each other throughout the majority of the story. Instead, Oschner lets their grief over their lost children run its course. The tale is cold and contemplative, but has an undercurrent of humanity that draws readers to the couple’s struggles.
Some stories focus on everyday problems with a dash of Spielbergian intrigue and mystery. “How One Carries Another” chronicles the story of a family — Jerry, Manet, and Jerry’s father — receiving tapes from a mysterious adventurer named Neils. The tapes chronicle Neils’ journeys around the world throughout the decades. Soon Jerry becomes obsessed with the tapes, even saying that he thought Neils “wished [him] alone to understand his secrets, to know him like no one else.”
Oschner describes the downward spiral of obsession with a clear goal in mind: to show that Jerry cannot escape his future by obsessing over Neils’s past. Her stories make readers question what they should put their faith in; whether it be family, the life of a stranger, or even a talking bird to patch up a marriage …
“The Last Words of the Mynah Bird” shows off Oschner’s comedic talent, as a couple’s pet bird, Tima, starts off as a calming third party to their rocky relationship. The second Tima starts speaking, however, he begins repeating the nasty things the couple says to one another, leading to a whole new level of chaos. Through stories like “Mynah Bird,” Oschner’s short story collection becomes emotionally well-rounded. It runs through stages of grief, drama, mystery, and hilarity, without ever losing its central focus on the faith which everyday people hold — the faith that life can get better.
Oschner visited Dr. Willis’ Creative Writing Workshop class on Sept. 12, and stated that her stories “aren’t about the ‘sunshine and rainbows’ type of faith. This is about the darker side of faith.” Her stories allow readers to see their problems in new places, whether it be the protest-heavy Prague or the dust-ridden Southern Russia. Oschner writes with easy, swaying prose and dialogue that feels real and heartfelt. While some of her stories’ situations may be familiar, the creative lens she crafts enables her readers to see those tales, and perhaps themselves, in a whole new light.