MIDDLETOWN — A new collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, culled from those published in literary journals throughout Middletown author Sari Rosenblatt’s writing career, is a 30-year labor of love.
“Father Guards the Sheep,” her first book, recently won the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award. “It’s wonderful, and kind of unbelievable, and very validating,” she said.
The effects fathers have on the lives of their grown daughters is the theme that runs throughout.
The win was hard-fought. Rosenblatt obtained her graduate degree from Iowa University, and, when she first entered the contest, she was a finalist. The next year, she edited it a little bit, and resubmitted it. It was named a semifinalist.
“I went back a notch,” she said, laughing heartily.
Longtime residents will take pleasure in reading about Middletown landmarks, the names of many of which were altered for publication, including Commodore Macdonough Elementary School, where Rosenblatt was once PTA president, is now “Peasley.” The “Belltown” Symphonic Band, a nod to the Middletown Symphonic Band and East Hampton’s nickname, and the “O’Rourke’s” breakfast restaurant, named after the city’s famous art deco diner in the North End — are also mentioned.
Themes parallel to Rosenblatt’s relationship with her father run throughout the collection.
“I was always trying to please him,” she said. “He was very hard to please. I didn’t do the things that would garner his approval,” something she wrote about in “Daughter of Retail.”
As her writing matured and her father passed away, Rosenblatt drew upon her younger brothers’ traits to create strong male characters. One of them, who was featured in “Daughter of Retail,” died at the same time the book was published.
“We were very close. I adored him. He would have loved to have read it,” said Rosenblatt, whose other brother read it while he was undergoing chemotherapy. “That touched me.”
Her older brothers are very influential in her life.
“They’re funny people, so their voices become fused with my voice,” said Rosenblatt, whose father also was full of humor, she said. “He was a powerful man. He was the retail magnate in a small town, and he could be tough.”
The first and last stories in the collection are “bookends,” the author said. In “Daughter of Retail,” the protagonist is 12 years old. In it, the daughter is working in her father’s store for a man, in many ways, just like Rosenblatt’s.
“She’s a full-fledged salesgirl, although she’s young, and she’s scared of herself, scared of her body. She has to get close up and sell a bra. That’s the major scene,” she said.
In the last story, “As in Life,” the woman is in her 30s. “Now, the father is old, and, essentially, he’s dying, and he’s come home from a nursing home,” the author said. Both are set in Naugatuck, where Rosenblatt grew up.
The title story is derived from the words of a German song the narrator/father used to speak to his daughter as if it were a prayer. “She was mostly raised by her mother, but has a memory of her father in which the father would tuck her in at night,” Rosenblatt said.
“Sleep baby, sleep,” he would intone in German. “The father guards the sheep …”
“The meaning is kind of ironic, because the father leaves the family, and there’s no one watching out for her,” Rosenblatt said. The girl grows up to be a liar, and, in fact, moves back home years later to move in with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend.
In order to stay in her own room rather than the couch, the character says she is pregnant. “She’s still like a little girl. She’s essentially looking for fathers to guide her,” Rosenblatt said.
Her father was a math whiz. “He loved numbers. He was, he would say, ‘a merchant,’ so every night, he would have this ledger full of the day’s take,” Rosenblatt said.
As a young girl, she’d watch her father go over the books nightly. “He would add columns of numbers in his head. He loved to add.” In contrast, Rosenblatt said, math was “foreign to me.”
She didn’t live up to her father’s expectations in terms of math or sports, as her brothers did. Her father was Jewish, and a bodybuilder who was terribly bullied as a child. “Being fit and being strong — that was so important to him. I was skinny and unathletic.”
In “Father Guards the Sheep,” the daughter character, who is very self-conscious, has difficulty getting undressed and showering with her classmates in gym, and earns a less-than-stellar grade.
“‘What’s your excuse?’ [the father] would say, his now-relaxed arm pointing again at the sixty-five. There was no excuse and the only way to survive in the world was to have no body. It all came down to having an invisible body, denying the body, or trying to just walk away from the body, leaving the shell behind and taking the head with you,” Rosenblatt wrote.
“Writing stories is a way to memorialize your life, make sense of your life. My resume reads like a novel — all the different jobs I had,” said Rosenblatt, who has also taught fiction writing at Wesleyan University.
Right out of college, Rosenblatt took a job as an in-patient psychiatric aide at the Connecticut Mental Health Center in New Haven. “Me and the others did all the hands-on contact with very ill people. You saw everything.”
“I considered that my basic training,” the author said. “Some people go into the military and they learn about themselves, and they learn hard facts about life.”
She taught at the Educational Center for the Arts magnet school in New Haven for 12 years, situated in an “arts enclave,” amid creative institutions such as the Neighborhood Music School and Creative Arts Workshop.
Rosenblatt stepped away from teaching last year to edit her novel, “Daughter of Retail,” based on the short story in her collection. “It’s hard to leave these characters once they’ve taken hold of you. I especially had a hard time leaving the father in that story. He and the narrator had a lot of unfinished emotional business to play out.”
For information, visit uipress.uiowa.edu. The book is for sale at Wesleyan R.J. Julia Booksellers at 413 Main St., in Middletown, and RJ Julia Booksellers at 768 Boston Post Road in Madison.