Family Curse: Field Notebooks (1880-2020)

First, I love a novella. Not too big, not too small, sized just right. Who has time for 900-page tomes? Not me. Short stories are great, I enjoy them, but they’re stories, not (mini) novels. Novellas rule by allowing just enough space to set the stage, round out a character, and develop a plot.

Tenacity Plys does just that with Family Curse: Field Notebooks (1880-2020), a perfectly sized examination of family secrets, cycles and patterns. It’s an interesting and low-key funny read, written by a natural storyteller.

It’s 2020 and Virgil Sykes is working on sifting through late Aunt Deb’s belongings and finds a diary, or several diaries in one. At the same time, they decide to write their own ‘Cleaning Notes’ account, longhand, stating “Yes, I’m writing this in pen – I live without regret.” That made me smile.

As Virgil starts reading the old diaries – from 1993, 1965 and the 1800s – you find out that disappearances or alien abductions have been part of the family tradition going back over 100 years. Some strange happenings in the woods behind the family house.

The woods are a sinister character in this novella, and Plys gets you to see and feel the tension of the unknown. Never go into the woods!

Plys handles all the different voices in the diaries well. I especially liked Virginia, Virgil’s mother, who lost her sister to the woods / aliens. She treated it as a mystery to be solved and not just something that happens to the family once a generation or so.

As Virgil reads the diaries, they use colored sticky notes to mark passages. The stickies are color-coded: yellow for things to look up later, green for comments. It’s a clever way to keep Virgil’s reflections and thoughts at the forefront, for this is Virgil’s story.

I liked Virgil, who is smart and knowing one moment and then slightly unsure of themselves the next. They use humor to deflect, like when a knock comes late at night and there’s no way they’re going to answer the door. Could be one of the “sons of lynchers and witch burners” from town, who don’t like the different, the queer or neurodivergent.

Plys weaves in mentions of Changelings throughout Family Curse, and it’s interesting to think of how myths and stories can take hold, even in the face of reason and fact. Depending on when they lived throughout history, neurodivergent people, and people who don’t conform to standard gender definitions, were possibly viewed as mentally ill or under the influence of a demon, and they were often murdered. Which obviously is outrageous but if you pay attention to the news, you know it continues.

Plys is a talented writer with the ability condense things down to their essence, like this thought –

…myths are created by people, for their own reasons; a monster is a shadow cast by a human.

Family Curse is meant to be read and re-read, to fully grasp the layers and connections, and to enjoy the sly humor and intelligence of Tenacity Plys.

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