“Rhode Island Stories,” by Michael Fine, is a collection of 16 short stories that capture the culture and diversity of the state. Fine’s stories, while fiction, speak through characters who come alive by sharing life’s experiences.
The cover of the book draws in the reader with an unknown set of bare feet and legs wading in the water. It portens good, albeit complicated, things to come.
“The First Violinist of Lowden Street” is the title of the opening story. It tells of a 12-year-old girl, Alexandra, who walks to Lowden Street carrying a violin case to inquire about music lessons.
She is not the usual student whose parents typically initiate inquiries regarding lessons. Alexandra, who barely speaks English, notices children coming out of a house on her way home from school, which piques her curiosity.
Sonia, the music teacher, introduces Alexandra to the instrument and schedules another meeting for one week later, believing her new student will not return. But she does, over and over again.
Alexandra proves to be an excellent student. “She had the music hidden in her soul,” Fine writes.
Yet the unexpected (or maybe not?) happens when Alexandra is given the chance to meet a “great teacher.”
In the “Prisoner of Ideas,” Sonia, owner of a triple-decker in Central Falls because it was “cheap and the number worked,” meets Babatunde, an adjunct professor and poet. Babatunde lives in North Providence, and believes Sonia’s house represents “everything that was right and wrong with America, with democracy, with Sonia herself.”
Despite this, they become fond of each other. They appreciate how each listens to the other. Pithy, meaningful sentences abound. “He doesn’t give her ideas, he helps her say what she believes instead of hiding it behind words,” Finn writes.
“The Death Spiral” involves a policeman overseeing a large gathering. He questions a tattooed man who seems suspicious. He then learns the man is the son of a cop from Pawtucket who died of cancer. After the death of his dad, the man got into drugs and landed in prison. Yet the policeman has a moment where he thinks of him as one of his “people, which makes him safe.”
Lo and behold, the policeman realizes the man is there to stop Sen. Whitehouse, whom he believes is “not from Rhode Island” and is “the swamp.” The policeman realizes the man is there to confront attendees. The conclusion: the event is symbolic of the world having reached a place that is like two separate nations with nothing in common, or as the title of the story suggests, the country is in a death spiral.
These but three of the stories, all of which share contemporary messages. They evoke themes regarding life challenges, overcoming hardship, the effects of hard work, and even some undisclosed messages that leave the reader curious about the outcome.
Fine is a long-time Rhode Island resident, community organizer, family physician, and was the director of the Rhode Island Department of Health between 2011 and 2015. His storytelling skills and straightforward language are noteworthy. And the stories do not have to be read in any particular order. Each has value in and of itself.
The book, while in many ways somber, is fun to read, especially for locals, since many familiar Rhode Island locations are mentioned. It might have benefitted from a bit more spell-checking; for example, Shelia for Sheila and Ritz Carleton for Ritz Carlton. But that doesn’t diminish the impact of the book and its insights.
The back cover aptly notes: “Rhode Island. A tiny state with more stories than people . . . Hopes and dreams, deaths and disappointments, loves and heartbreaks. Some trying to repair the world. Others overwhelmed by the beauty of the world as it is. All in one place, becoming one people. What democracy looks like.”
Another way to describe the book is that it will resonate with every reader, regardless of where they live.