Novel offers a fierce hymn to troubled small towns

The Annie Year is the debut novel from Stephanie Wilbur Ash.
"The Annie Year" is the debut novel from Stephanie Wilbur Ash published by Unnamed Press. n
Courtesy Unnamed Press

Minnesota writer Stephanie Wilbur Ash's new novel "The Annie Year" is a fierce hymn to small Midwestern towns, and the women who live there.

The story is about a 30-something CPA. She knows everyone's financial secrets, and many of the non-financial secrets too. But her life is turned upside down by the arrival of a new teacher at the high school.

As houses around town begin exploding, it's clear something is wrong.

Ash traces "The Annie Year" back to her own formative experiences.

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"This book absolutely comes from having to stand up at the 400 Bar on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota and tell a story before a noted local band goes on," she said.

The venue imposed very specific strictures. And a time limit. Ash said a writer had just seven seconds to win over a bar crowd.

"Your story has to be loud and unusual and probably has to be really funny and really raunchy," she said.

Stephanie Wilbur Ash, author of The Annie Year.
Stephanie Wilbur Ash credits her experience reading stories before local bands took the stage in bars around the Twin Cities for the sentiment behind her debut novel.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Ash was part of Lit 6, a group specializing in literary bar gigs. She says she needed to find a special, unusual voice. So her character Tandy Caide emerged from the blast furnace of bar literature.

"A little angry, a little raunchy, a little, I would say, grumpy. Some people have described her as grumpy."

Tandy is an accountant in a small Iowa town. She knows everyone, and everyone knows her. She's taken over her late father's business, and to a certain extent her father's friends too. She's chafing at the sameness of it all.

"Small rural areas, and I am from one, they can be very homogeneous," Ash said. "And this exotic creature comes to town in the shape of a vocational agriculture teacher with a ponytail, and an unusual belt, and some Peace Corps experience. And you know, she's into that. She's into that. Who isn't, though, really?"

In the book, Tandy is introduced to the new guy by the high school principal.

The Vo-Ag teacher said "Well, Principal Bierbauer here was asking me about my belt, Tandy."

He said my name slowly, in what you might call a deliberate way. It sounded like he thought my name was special, like it was full of potential. No one had ever said my name like that before.

Tandy is having a bad year, but embarks on an affair. She does so knowing there are no secrets in her small town. Complicating matters, she is married, and already involved in another dalliance. She'd love to talk to someone about it. But she hasn't spoken to her best friend in years, even though she sees her every day in passing. And that's not all:

She also hates musical theater, and so of course it had to be the year that the high school does the musical "Annie."

Hence the title of the novel.

"The Annie Year" is both funny and dark. It's set against the economic struggles of the area, and the realities of a methamphetamine problem. Ash says her hometown of Oelwein, Iowa, was the subject of the bestselling book "Methland." The combination of hard times and drug problems produces a particular small-town perspective.

"There's a sort of fatalistic absurdism about that," she said. "In the town in which my novel takes place, they don't even have enough money to buy the clean-up uniform that you have to clean it up. They have to share it. So one person wears the bottom and one person wears the top."

Ash is reading from the book at a sold-out event Thursday in Excelsior, and then Saturday evening at Subtext Books in St Paul.

While Ash pokes fun at this small town, she's very protective of small-town life. She talks about being spurred by a line from a Paul Gruchow essay about the underlying message he believed society teaches rural children.

"And the answer is, 'If you were any good, you wouldn't be here,'" said Ash. "And that really kicked off the energy of this novel, and so the fierceness I hope that you recognize is, I am not going to accept that. I am not going to accept that about myself."

And neither is Tandy Caide in "The Annie Year."