Book Review: “Out Across the Nowhere” by Amy Willoughby-Burle

| Reviewed by Mary Ickes |

These fourteen short stories in ninety-three pages—Amy Willoughby-Burle’s debut collection—are all the more powerful for their brevity. As she explores life’s darkest facets in stories ranging from four to ten pages, Willoughby-Burle’s characters, without apology, meet life head on. Many of the stories ponder abandonment through parental desertion, death, and broken marriages.

“Out Across the Nowhere” by Amy Willoughby-Burle

In Stone Jesus in the Front Yard, two small girls, fearing that their mother has abandoned them, seek comfort from a statue of Jesus as they would a favored doll. Though the two boys in Out Across the Nowhere live with their parents, the older boy writes of their plight: Enough times out the back door, down Tiger Lily Hill, through the Pasture of the Unknown Horses, and to the Milky Way Tree and we will find it. Our portal into the other world. The world of bedtime stories and cookies for dessert. We believe it’s there. We must. The mothers in Stepping Out in Front of the Train and Rotten Oranges also live at home, but the first has abandoned her daughter to a maniacally religious and abusive stepfather, the second to a doomed love affair. As the daughter in The Conspicuous Absence of Knowing drives home for her father’s funeral, she recalls that he had known her only five times during his six-month stay in the nursing home. The son in Limbo, as he has for months, continues to visit his father daily even though … [his] face is weary from the expense of tears and there seems nothing to do but wait for the last of it.

The response of June’s husband, in The Downside of Redemption, shows that he could not care less when she announces, “I’ve reached the point in my life where it’s become absolutely necessary to become a hooker.” The desperate single mothers in Hungry and Into the Burn have been scorned and abandoned by everybody who might have helped them.

On first reading, these stories may seem hopelessly depressing, but, on closer examination, small gleams of hope shine through like the cover’s fireflies. Sibling loyalty reigns supreme! The older siblings in the first two stories watch over their younger sister and brother with parental expertise. Three sisters join forces to support their grieving mother: … [we] planted ourselves like tiger lilies outside her bedroom door when she cried; tried to spread out and make her happy. A young girl shoe shines her hair black to emulate her adored older sister.

Even though each story stands alone, actions and images weave a sense of community. These similarities are the gifts of an author to characters peering out across the nowhere for signs of hope. His father slowly dying, a son looks out the window … at winter and remembers what it was like to not know how hard the world can beat you down. An abandoned wife, in the dead of winter finally realizes … just how cold it really is. A stone Jesus offers hope in another story.

In the technical sense, Amy Willoughby-Burle’s book was published. In the literary sense, she quietly blasted her way onto the scene with complex and intriguing characters and images and beautifully resonant writing that introduces readers to the concept of looking out across the nowhere.

BIO: Amy Willoughy-Burle was raised in the small coastal town of Kure Beach, North Carolina. She earned a BA in English from East Carolina University where she also studied in the Master’s Creative Writing program. She spent several years in her husband’s home state of Missouri before getting homesick for North Carolina. She now lives in the mountains near Asheville with her very gracious husband and four children.

Her fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Potomac Review, Inkwell, Sycamore Review, Reed Magazine, and The MacGuffin.

She recently acquired an agent for her two novels. First published will be A Soft and Thunderous Noise … Billy, a farmer in rural North Carolina, gains a new perspective on life after his death. Finding himself lingering instead of entering the pearly gates, Billy has a chance to make things right or watch them all fall apart. Nina, in The Lemonade Year … has found herself where she doesn’t want to be. She’s just lost her father, her marriage is ending, and her job is in jeopardy … All Nina has left is an assignment photographing 42 Ways to Make Lemonade. Read the first chapters at Amy’s website. Contact:

View from my Library
Tabatha, T.C.P.E. (Tabby Cat Par Excellence)

catioFinally, my first column for WNC Woman. First, I shall introduce myself. Mary rescued me from Tiger, a cat who is a misogynist, nitwit, or both. When I dared show my face, he ran me down and attacked me. When said nitwit cat started attacking me as I entered the barn for meals, Mary could finally take action. Tiger gently but very firmly found himself outside the barn wondering what had happened. He wasn’t accustomed to that sort of discipline on his turf. Eventually, I became Mary’s library cat because Buddy, Tooley, and Figaro, who are feline misogynists, nitwits, or both, also live here. The few times that they saw a chance to sneak in and eat my food, they firmly but gently found themselves outside the library. Whenever I want to explore the house, Mary confines them. I especially like discovering them on the other side of the French doors during my stroll because a hiss sets them off quite nicely. I enjoy being a library cat because my horizons have broadened greatly. I’m learning so much about books, music, and movies that I shall soon be guiding Mary’s choices to a more scholarly direction.

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