Book Review: RUTTING SEASON by Mandeliene Smith

Rutting Season is a collection of nine stories that are as earthy, animal, and at times brutal as the title would imply. My favorite stories included “Mercy,” about a widow keeping vigil over her favorite horse after her carelessness puts the horse’s life in danger, and “The Someday Cat,” about a mother who begins selling her children for cash, and the toddler daughter who fears that she’s next to be sold. Mandeliene Smith writes ferociously and vulnerably; this is short fiction, not personal writing, and yet each story is imbued with personal, vital urgency. I didn’t always love this collection while I was reading it–I think Smith writes awkwardly about race, and I think the quality of the stories included here varies–but now that I’m a few days removed from it, I admire Smith’s style and choice of subjects more and more. This book is brave.

You can read my full review of Rutting Season below.


Rutting Season Cover
cover description: A mustard yellow background has a cutout in the shape of a hand that features a nature illustration of a pink flower and a yellow bird.

Rutting Season: Stories by Mandeliene Smith

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  • publisher: Scribner (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: February 12, 2019
  • length: 240 pages

Randall wasn’t their father, or even their stepfather, and they couldn’t have given a rat’s ass about his problems with the police or anyone else, but it just so happened that Danny and Amber were both at the house when the SUV from the sheriff’s office drove up, and by the time they realized there was going to be trouble, Randall had already bolted the door and taken out a gun.

–from “Siege” in Rutting Season by Mandeliene Smith

Do you ever catch yourself being way too hard on something or someone, just because it (or they) remind you too much of yourself? I cannot tell a lie: I was initially going to eviscerate this book, because at times, it irritated me like an insult.

Rutting Season is Mandeliene Smith’s debut short story collection, and in it, she explores raw pain with obsessive intensity. Much of it is pain that’s incredibly familiar to me: abusive homes, the messy and literally visceral experience of living on a farm, mental illness, violence.

Because it felt so familiar, Rutting Season cut me to the bone, and it scrambled my ability to comprehend or evaluate it. I think my conclusion is that it’s mostly an excellent book. But I hope you’ll forgive me if this review takes a roundabout path to that destination.

First, the things about Rutting Season that genuinely grated me, that I wasn’t necessarily oversensitized to:

  1. The way Smith writes about race, especially her physical descriptions of Black characters,
  2. The unevenness of the collection.

I admire when white authors make the decision to write outside their comfort zone. I’ve been chewing over Toni Morrison’s admonition to not write what you know all week: “Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? Or what about a Grande Madame in Paris? Things way outside their camp. Imagine it, create it. Don’t record and editorialize on some event that you’ve already lived through.

And I think that advice applies very much to Rutting Season, where Smith is making clear choices to write outside what she knows.

Unfortunately, I think some of those choices undercut her otherwise interesting Black characters. In my least favorite story of the collection, “What It Takes,” Black high school students menace white high school students, including the white protagonist, a teenage pot dealer. I think the point of the story is that the white students’ perception is wrong–that what they perceive as “menace” is justifiable racial tension. But it’s so close to the line that I think you could read it either way. Subtle fiction is important, but I get nervous when white people write about race so subtly that it becomes a game of Schrödinger’s racism.

In a later story that I otherwise loved very much, “The Someday Cat,” a Black character is literally described as “chocolate.” Which, almost more than it is annoyingly fetishizing and racist, is simply a tired description of dark skin.

But for that story, too, there’s a Racism Loophole™: it’s told from the perspective of a white toddler whom we already know loves chocolate and who probably has never seen a Black person in her life, who might genuinely describe a Black person as “chocolate.” Schrödinger’s racism.

The third story that is significantly about race, “You the Animal,” is the most successful at being about race, I think. Where “The Someday Cat” is told from the perspective of a neglected toddler being removed from her home by two Black social workers, “You the Animal” is the same story told from the perspective of one of the social workers. It’s an interesting exploration of what happens when people who were abused as children encounter abuse as adults, and while I didn’t think it was the strongest in the collection, it was still thought-provoking.

The unevenness question is so closely tied to the race question that I think it’s hard to separate them. When Smith is writing about white people–as in “Mercy,” where a new widow struggles to hold her farm together in the face of her own exhaustion and grief, as in the title story “Rutting Season,” where a potential act of workplace violence is dissected from three angles, as in “Siege,” when three siblings separated by their mother’s death come together during a terrifying threat of gun violence–the collection is extraordinary. When she’s not, the stories falter a bit.

But extraordinary is still a word I’m comfortable applying to much of Rutting Season.

What moved me most about Smith’s writing is its vulnerability, almost fragility, underneath a hard, ferocious surface. It’s a literary crème brûlée. She makes messy, risky choices and sticks to her guns. (Perhaps a poor choice of words given how much this book condemns gun violence.)

I was struck by how reminiscent the first story, “Mercy,” is of Alice Munro. Like so many Munro stories, “Mercy” is domestic and terrible all at once. It’s at its Munro-iest when its protagonist, Pam, hesitates for a split second before calling the vet for her sick horse because the vet constantly patronizes her and she doesn’t want to deal with it. You’re frustrated with her and understand her deeply all at once.

But Rutting Season is not knockoff Munro. Smith demonstrates that most in “The Someday Cat,” which felt wholly unique in its execution. A story about a woman who literally begins selling her children in order to appease her terrible boyfriend and afford groceries could easily tip into a melodramatic pantomime of extreme abuse and poverty rather than feel like something real that crackles with electric terror. But it does crackle. I had a white knuckle grip on my copy of the book while I read. It reminded me so vividly of some of the things I saw growing up in a desperately poor area that I had to take a breather after finishing.

Rutting Season feels a little like staring at the sun. The premises of Smith’s stories are so bright and ambitious that it’s hard to get a handle on why they work (or even if they work). But there’s no denying their power.

It feels strange to write this about a literary short story collection rather than a horror novel, but it feels right anyway: only read Rutting Season if you dare. ★★★★☆

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My copy of Rutting Season came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

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