The storytelling potential of the concept of shared tragedy is deep. It is also exceptionally difficult territory for an author to cover properly. There is the risk of accidently emphasizing certain stories and characters over others, of the works coming off as insincere, or the stories simply not being able to take us to the tragedy and its horrific, uncertain aftermath. Worse yet, there are dozens upon dozens of ways in which even the best authors can fall into any of those three possibilities.
Bonnie ZoBell unquestionably knew all of these potential pitfalls, when she began work on the moving, diverse collection What Happened Here. Wrapping one novella and ten short stories around a 1978 aviation disaster in San Diego, California, she has established eleven unique, challenging narratives. She gives each story room to breathe, express itself, and lend something crucial and singular to the larger perspective. She understands that it is impossible for these characters to escape what occurred in that San Diego North Park neighborhood. After all, would you be able to forget that moment in which a Pacific Southwest Airlines jet crashed into a Cessna over your home?
Probably not. Without diminishing that larger disaster, ZoBell moves as deep into the repercussions of what happened to those on the ground as any writer would ever dare. She allows the drama, horror, humor, and humanity one would expect of those who experience something like this event to occur naturally. This is particularly prevalent in such stories as “Uncle Rempt”, “Lucinda’s Song”, and most certainly in the title novella. There is no forced drama, or a desperation in ZoBell’s words that endeavors to make sure we understand the ripple effect of something like the ’78 aviation disaster in San Diego. You will understand everything that actually happened. You will then be able to take your understanding of the true-to-life elements, and place them within the short stories and novella that make up ZoBell’s breathtakingly brilliant collection.
What makes What Happened Here the kind of thing that you absolutely need to find and read is its honesty. These people do not feel as though they exist only within the vacuum of the disaster, or even the stories themselves. In casting her concept with such a diverse range of characters, ZoBell is able to delve into various personalities, religions, dreams, superstitions, prejudices, backgrounds, and of course, reactions to disaster. It’s a daunting challenge to do that, and somehow tie it all together in various forms, but ZoBell meets that challenge.
What Happened Here proves that fiction can be part of a time capsule for an actual event. Most of us are obviously unable to know for absolute certain what that disaster was like, or how the residents of the North Park area coped with things after the fact. However, when we trust the storytelling prowess of someone like Bonnie ZoBell, we naturally assume the understanding that someone is telling us what it might have been like. Her stories are remarkable in so many ways, some of which are simply in terms of how the characters are depicted, how they speak, and how the stories move. The most outstanding component is in how all ZoBell uses so many of those literary talents to create this monument to the past.