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I Was a Revolutionary: Stories


I Was a Revolutionary: Stories

Second-time author Andrew Malan Milward’s newly published collection, I WAS A REVOLUTIONARY, certainly lives up to its title, at least in a literary sense. It simultaneously disproves the idea that one must stray very far from home in order to write good literature, and defends the merits of remembering history not only for its own sake, but for the sake of understanding the present and all the complexities of time and place that led up to it.

These diverse but ever-connected themes, always in dialogue with one another, deal with the grand scope of history as understood through the intimate lives of the individuals who lived it, as well as the opposite --- namely, the attempt to piece together the intricacies of a human being who lived and breathed by trying to fix them in a certain historical context, thus rendering them static: no longer living or breathing, merely history. While often in conflict with one another and never quick to skip ahead to easy answers, the various themes seem, at least in part, to defend a passage from the title story of the collection, “I Was a Revolutionary,” in which a jaded, exasperated history professor exclaims, “The history of one’s home matters. We should understand where we come from, the legacies we inherit.”

I WAS A REVOLUTIONARY is first and foremost defined by its status as a collection of short stories, but beyond that, it is perhaps Milward’s commitment to his genre of choice that makes the work truly stand out. The exact genre achieved is difficult to pin down only because of the breadth of time and space that is expertly covered in the book’s succinct and tightly pared 243 pages. However, it seems safe to say that whatever genre Milward has created for himself, it is founded on regional history --- not simply history as an unchanging and unaffecting remnant of the past, but a dynamic history, one that continues to live and play a role in the world of the present whether we are aware of it or not.

"...a fast-paced page-turner of a book, with Milward weaving together fictional narrative, historical fact and illusory anecdotes so seamlessly you won’t be aware of how much you’ve read or learned until you’re already done."

Milward wastes no time in launching his readers into worlds of the past before dropping them back into the present without warning, going back and forth between eras until it seems that the two worlds of past and present have collided and the boundaries between them are blurred. Of course, this effect of time travelling whiplash on the reader seems to be precisely Milward’s aim. But such a lofty and painstaking undertaking could understandably become so unbearable for the reader as to render the collection incomprehensible, if not wholly unreadable.

Fortunately, however, Milward is clearly dedicated to more than simply unveiling an exciting and terrifying past, and it is his role as narrative architect that is most indispensable in making these stories work. With very few words and rarely any explanation, he constructs each narrative with both historical and literary precision that make for informative and enjoyable reads that will just as soon leave you heartbroken over an event from a century-and-a-half ago as pressed for further answers about the present. Not once, not even twice, but several times during my reading of this book, I found myself online in need of either more information or confirmation that the bizarre history Milward explores could possibly be true. Not to spoil anyone else’s Internet rampages, but I can assure you now that all the facts do indeed add up.

Not unlike his first short story collection, THE AGRICULTURE HALL OF FAME, I WAS A REVOLUTIONARY is rooted fast and firm in Milward’s home state of Kansas. This is not so unusual a tendency for a writer; after all, the maxim Write what you know seems to demand it. But what Milward is doing here is more than scraping the barrel of his own memories simply because he doesn’t know anything else. He is embarking on a journey in which he fully submerges and inundates himself in a particular place so he can learn more about it --- and himself.

In her essay “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” Flannery O’Connor writes about the regional author’s plunge into both self and place: “This descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his region. It will be a descent through the darkness of the familiar in a world where, like the blind man cured in the gospels, he sees men as if they were trees, but walking.” Milward, again in the titular story of the collection, seems to endorse this view of the benefits of regional writing. In the context of the story, the narrator is reflecting on the timeline of his own life and the way in which he now perceives events that took place many years before: “Over the years, they became part of our personal mythology, a way in which to understand our past and to account for what had become of us since.”

And surely, if there’s a single thread among the various stories and times divulged in I WAS A REVOLUTIONARY, it’s a complement to that age-old proverb “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Milward, coming at the same idea from a different angle, simply relates the notion that not only are those unlearned in the past fated to repeat the same mistakes, they will have no means to make sense of where they went wrong and what unknown inheritances and legacies of history led them there.

Despite the seemingly complex themes, I WAS A REVOLUTIONARY is a fast-paced page-turner of a book, with Milward weaving together fictional narrative, historical fact and illusory anecdotes so seamlessly you won’t be aware of how much you’ve read or learned until you’re already done.

Reviewed by Gena LeBlanc on August 21, 2015

I Was a Revolutionary: Stories
by Andrew Malan Milward

  • Publication Date: August 2, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0062377329
  • ISBN-13: 9780062377326