Anguish. There is no better word to describe the emotion inspired by the title piece in Philip Kraske’s A Legacy of Chains and Other Stories (Encompass Editions, 224 pp. $12.50, paper; $4.99, Kindle). In each of his stories Kraske deftly creates a sense of place and time, as well as a unique character. Far more than a backdrop, the context of each story is a living presence within the tale.
The most powerful one is the title story. A work of plausible fiction, “A Legacy of Chains” is set in a near-future America sliding into civil war. With domestic terrorism rampant and vast regions of the country breaking away, a few friends gather for respite from it all.
After dinner, the protagonist reflects on an experience a few years earlier when he suddenly received evidence that American prisoners of war were being held in Vietnam, nearly forty years after the war’s end. Then a State Department officer in Spain learns of a group of American refugees, all men in their seventies, in a town along the Straits of Gibraltar. Within hours he is standing face to face with the group and speaking with their leader, a U.S. Army surgeon captured by the North Vietnamese in 1965.
Staggered that these men are alive decades after they were reported missing, Klippen is further shocked to learn that the American government is determined to kill the men and those who helped them escape from Vietnam. As Klippen hurries to help, a third blow hits when he realizes that Milner has an agenda of his own.
The story “Pirates” also deserves attention for its haunting account of a woman’s life after escaping Vietnam in the 1980s to settle in Minneapolis with her family. Weary after years of enduring fraud, discrimination, and worse, she struggles with the consequences of a burglary at her flower stall in the city center. This unusual Christmas tale takes a surprise turn when the thieves return for second visit.
Highly effective overall, the book is occasionally uneven. Now and then characters recount what others have said and leave the reader uncertain about who is actually speaking. Certain words are deliberately misspelled to underline a character’s accent, stupidity, or both. These are minor points, though.
Kraske, who has lived and taught English in Spain since the 1980s and did not serve in the military, has created otherwise exceptional stories and some great writing, especially his detailed descriptions of the beauty of Spain, a country he clearly loves.
Lean and compelling, unsettling and inspiring, A Legacy of Chains and Other Stories is worth the read.
Kraske’s website is philipkraske.com