The Ephrem Stories
In Janice Deal’s linked story collection, everyday people navigate the uncertainties of life in the American heartland, seeking order in chaos with a very human mix of resilience and folly.
At first glance, the fictional Ephrem, Illinois, seems a friendly, familiar town—it draws you right in, even if you don’t need supplies at the mall or a snack at Brat Station. But as you come closer, you discover people who are complex and unpredictable. Life itself is capricious, and loneliness can turn a person strange. Past traumas linger. Illness sometimes falls like a hammer. Yet there’s much affection here, small and large examples of human kindness.
For years, Janice Deal has been publishing award-winning stories about Ephrem. Now assembled for the first time, these extraordinary tales offer a masterful snapshot of life in today’s small-town America.
Janice Deal is the author of a novel, The Sound of Rabbits, and a previous story collection, The Decline of Pigeons. The Sound of Rabbits placed as a finalist for both the Many Voices Project annual competition and the Black Lawrence Press Big Moose Prize. The Decline of Pigeons was a finalist in the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Stories from her new collection, Strange Attractors, have won The Moth Short Story Prize and the Cagibi Macaron Prize. Janice has also received an Illinois Arts Council Artists Fellowship Award for prose.
Fiction, 159 pages
Forthcoming, September 12, 2023
paperback / $18.95 / ISBN 978-1-7355585-4-7
ebook / $9.95 / ISBN 978-1-7355585-5-4
Praise for Strange Attractors
“Because it is set in a small town, it is tempting to compare Deal’s collection to Sherwood Anderson’s ‘Winesburg, Ohio.’ There are certainly similarities. But Deal seems a little closer to Anton Chekhov than Anderson. She handles fine grades of emotion with humor and wistfulness, and with a surgeon’s delicate touch. There is not just a child’s love for a mother—but subtle gradations of it. How much do I owe her? How badly should I feel, about this slight or this absence, or this food stain on a bedspread? The answers are unknown. There is order in chaos, and chaos in order. These strange stories stay with you, attracting more meaning when they’re read again.”
—Mary Wizniewski, Newcity Lit
“Ephrem, Illinois, is America, with its winking welcome lights that don’t stay on all night, its jaunty, sinister mall, and its legendary lake-fish, ‘Jingles.’ The characters in these linked stories will unsettle you, and break your heart—some by the depths of their courage, and others by the moments they break, becoming unwitting agents of change. Hope and fear will grip you in equal measure. Flannery O’Connor would recognize and applaud the vivid, muscular prose and powerful vision of Janice Deal.”
—Marjorie Sandor, author of Portrait of My Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime (Winner of the National Jewish Book Award in Fiction), and others
“Not since the abrupt—and welcome—rediscovery of Lucia Berlin’s short fictions in 2015 have I read such a marvelous story collection as Janice Deal’s Strange Attractors. In a quietly luminous and deceptively steady voice, Deal mines the lives and burdens of the generally overlooked citizens of Ephrem, Illinois, a semi-rural community college town near the Wisconsin border. She makes her gallery of strangers our intimates in the way Willa Cather once did.”
—James Magruder, author of Vamp Until Ready
“Janice Deal’s short story collection explores the complicated lives that often go unnoticed behind the guise of a friendly town. Strange Attractors features a memorable cast of everyday characters with troublingly complex and traumatic inner lives. These intricately written stories come together to shed light on the uncertainties that exist in the modern American heartland.”
—Michael Welch, “12 Must-Read Books of September 2023,” Chicago Review of Books
“Reading Strange Attractors, I felt a growing tenderness and respect for Janice Deal’s brave, solitary, and often wounded characters. In her elegy to a small Midwestern town, Deal somehow encapsulates whole worlds—in fragile moments of connection, life-altering actions, and stoic contemplation. These wondrous stories will stay with me; I know I’ll pick them up again and again.”
—Katherine Shonk, author of The Red Passport and Happy Now?
“In the tradition of Winesburg, Ohio, this hauntingly beautiful collection of linked stories by Janice Deal features vivid, unforgettable characters inhabiting the fictional town of Ephrem, Illinois. This is a town where smart people read string theory but may not be headed for college, where teenagers itch to leave but can’t fully escape, where many struggle with demons—alcohol, income insecurity, and reputations seared into the collective memory. The stories in this collection ask the question: Can we ever really leave home? In Strange Attractors: The Ephrem Stories, Deal has created her own strange attractor, a world that pulls the reader in and leaves an indelible mark.”
—Jan English Leary, author of Thicker Than Blood, Skating on the Vertical, and Town and Gown
“The map is the first clue to the delights that this remarkable collection offers (look for Babymaker, honey hole, Candymaker/QuickFry!). There are so many pleasures in Janice Deal’s immersive storytelling—rich and tasty details, unerring language, subversive humor. The people of Ephrem have fates as surprising and inevitable as a turtle in a Jacuzzi. It is a rare treat to walk among them.”
—Kathy Anderson, author of The New Town Librarian
“Welcome to Ephrem, a Midwestern town so minutely imagined by Janice Deal that you're sure to recognize someone you’ve known—and to wonder why you never noticed how interesting they actually are. Even the awful people (and there are a couple) have their moments; but most of the denizens of Deal’s stories are just trying to do their best, sometimes managing to surprise themselves—but always managing to make us wonder at their antics and misfortune and occasional good luck, and to believe it all wholeheartedly, because of the author’s subtle and seductive art, as deceptively simple-seeming as the very best magic.”
—Ellen Akins, author of Home Movie, World Like a Knife, and others
“With an honest and empathetic eye, Janice Deal mines the everyday and familiar for the extraordinary and sublime. The stories in Strange Attractors are quietly powerful, linked by a strong sense of place, yet each character is complicated and singular and richly drawn. I was absorbed from beginning to end.”
—Elise Juska, author of If We Had Known, The Blessings, and others
“In Strange Attractors, Janice Deal masterfully captures a certain type of American small-town life: ‘a suburb in the country, if you can picture that.’ Here, a lonely mother fights to stay sober by enrolling in a class on string theory at the community college, and a drifter falls into reverential silence recalling the brilliant colors of Faygo pop. Deal writes with empathy and unflinching wisdom about life’s existential yearnings, and she is both honest and skillful enough to send her characters to dying malls and franchise restaurants in search of answers. I am grateful for this collection. It is radiantly true.”
—Ginger Eager, author of The Nature of Remains
“Imagine you’re flying over a small town in the heart of America—modest houses, a strip mall, an industrial park edged with low apartment complexes and corn fields—then you dive in close. A roof lifts off and you are inside that home, caught up with characters in the moment when bad decisions and bad luck set everything asunder. Imagine the surprise, the breathlessness you’ll feel, and the sympathy. That’s what you’ll experience reading Janice Deal’s Ephrem stories. One after another, these stories will grip you. A little boy longing for his grandmother encounters an old woman who is anything but grandmotherly; a woman facing homelessness hopes to enrich her life with a college course in string theory; the fierce mother of a murderous teenager struggles to find a way forward. Probing what’s hidden within her characters, the unmet yearning, obsessions, and despair, Deal exposes the tragic disconnect between dreamy hopes and harsh reality. These inventive stories of intersecting, calamitous lives are searing, streaked with comedy, and unforgettable.”
—Lynn Sloan, author of the novels Midstream and Principles of Navigation and the story collection This Far Isn’t Far Enough
“The characters that populate Janice Deal’s immersive linked collection Strange Attractors: The Ephrem Stories are so fully rendered—so alive—that I had to keep reminding myself this is a book of fiction. The same can be said for the working-class suburban setting of Ephrem, Illinois. In vivid prose full of sensory-rich details (the food descriptions had me craving an array of snacks), Deal crafts characters and situations that are relatable and yet wholly unique, effortlessly blending pathos, humor, and, at times, shock. The breadth of characters, which range from young child to idiosyncratic widow, overlap not only geographically, but in their curiosity about the world and their deep desire for connection. My one regret was that, on the last page, I had to depart the town of Ephrem, although I can guarantee its quirky, empathetic residents won’t be exiting my thoughts anytime soon.”
—Marcie Roman, author of Journey to the Parallels, winner of the Kraken Book Prize
“Deal follows her novel, The Sound of Rabbits (2023), with a collection of interconnected stories in which she explores the lives of people from or passing through the fictional small town of Ephrem, Illinois. Ephrem's position at the border of Illinois and Wisconsin also serves to signal the in-between states of Deal's characters as they form problematic attachments. In ‘String Theory and Other Animals,’ Sandrine attempts to find meaning in her life after her daughter moves to New York City, striking up a friendship with another alcoholic, Grant, and considering taking a science class at the local community college. In ‘Family of Two,’ Teddy struggles to fit in at school and ends up, instead, obsessively stalking her teacher, culminating in a tragedy that will permanently alter life for her and her mother, Flo. In the title story, Flo attempts to reckon with what Teddy has done and what it means for her as a mother and a person. Deal's sensitive stories reflect both the hope and the despair experienced in a small town where not much will ever truly change.”
—Jillian Law, Booklist
“The Midwestern town of Ephrem, Illinois, is a place that exists only in author Janice Deal’s imagination. But in her beautifully woven linked story collection Strange Attractors: The Ephrem Stories, the town and its residents are so completely realized I found myself poking around Google maps, trying to determine which actual place it might be based on. Thankfully no reference is needed, as this collection begins with a delightful hand-drawn map identifying the homes of Deal’s characters, as well as landmarks that any reader who grew up in semi-rural America will recognize: the local community college, omnipresent Walmart and Jewel-Osco, a dying mall at the edge of town, the one hotel that’s really a motel, a remote location near the lake where teenagers go to hook up (nicknamed 'the Babymaker'). Every location on the map is rendered vivid through Deal’s meticulous storytelling.
“The characters in Ephrem lead mundane lives, until Deal telescopes in to moments of revealed truths, sudden outbursts and hidden traumas, making the residents more complex and deeply relatable. The challenges they face in this Wisconsin border town are universal: loneliness, financial insecurity, strained family relationships, alcohol abuse, a persistent feeling of restlessness.…
“The people of Strange Attractors might be your neighbor or coworker, your friend or family member. They might even be you.”
—Elizabeth Niarchos Neukirch, Chicago Review of Books