A featured book review of “The Peripatetic Coffin.” The author, Ethan Rutherford, will visit the Coon Rapids campus April 8.
By Connor Rystedt
The unifying trend within the diverse stories of Ethan Rutherford’s award-winning collection, “The Peripatetic Coffin,” is that they are written through the viewpoint of characters who are at odds with the people they live with and the world they live in. The eight stories that make up the collection cover a broad spectrum of settings and people, ranging from a pair of young boys wasting away their summer days to a group of handicapped men piloting a primitive submarine on an unlikely mission during the Civil War. Some elements are repeated throughout the stories, such as references to Rutherford’s native Seattle, or the consistent use of vessels or ships as a plot device, but each is written smartly and with a vast air of experience.
The stories in “The Peripatetic Coffin” are told through the viewpoints of characters who feel held down by the world they live in. These social deficiencies take root from the characters’ haunting pasts, like Robert, the little boy in “The Broken Group,” who was tied to a tree at summer camp during the middle of the night and left to fend for himself. Piotr Bayev—a youth aboard the ship that “The Saint Anna” is titled after—has issues more deep-rooted than a single traumatic experience. Piotr joins the ill-fated crew of the Russian vessel while running away from his home and his father’s pride in Bolshevism, the political ideology that has destroyed his family and community. Like Robert and Piotr, all of the central characters in these stories are well-developed with a clear and intriguing background, and their experiences tend to have a strong weight on their choices throughout the plot.
Rutherford’s use of plot revolves heavily around the development of his characters, leading them into situations that involve taking drastic measures. He has an unusual tendency to end his stories at the height of rising action, leaving readers to reflect on the decisions that his characters have made, and to try and speculate as to where these choices will lead them, rather than being handed a clean and tidy ending wrapped in a pretty bow. In “Dirwhals!,” a post-apocalyptic piece that centers around the hunting of monstrous, worm-like creatures and harvesting them for bio-matter, Rutherford leaves readers at the most climactic moment. During the event of the climax—a crew of men coming face to face with a multitude of surfacing dirwhals—the focus isn’t in the action, but what the action means for the characters and their environment. This technique is used in every single story of the collection, and may irk some readers who like to know exactly where a character will end up and how his/her life will turn out. Even so, the conflict is ripe and unpredictable, written with gut-churning tension.
Rutherford’s ability to create internally flawed characters from whom readers are given a lens to view and critique society in ways they never before have been able is reminiscent of the novelist Don DeLillo. This collection is the first in what seems to be a promising career. His eye for physical details, his discipline in different genres and time periods, and his command over character development make Ethan Rutherford more than worthy of his Minnesota Book Award.
Connor Rystedt is a student of creative writing at ARCC. He recently won the Norman Mailer Award in Non-fiction for two-year college students. He will be attending Hamline University to pursue his BFA after graduating from ARCC this spring.