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Sweet Land Stories Hardcover – May 4, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

As one might expect of Doctorow, the title is ironic. In settings that range across the U.S., most of the alienated characters in the five stories here find life anything but sweet as they struggle to surmount the stigmas of poverty, lack of education and their instincts to gamble against the odds. Three of the male protagonists are passive and amoral; attempting to defend their irrational behavior, each reminds himself that he is not stupid. All of themâ€"a young grifter who dutifully abets his mother's murderous greed on a farm near Chicago ("A House on the Plains"); a love-besotted accessory to a kidnapping in California (the slyly humorous "Baby Wilson"); and a cuckolded member of a religious cult commune in Kansas ("Walter John Harmon")â€"share a capacity for self-delusion and self-preservation. The two female protagonists attempt to alter fate and find themselves buffeted by the inescapable force of male power. The protagonist of "Jolene: A Life" is forced into a cross-country hegira in pursuit of a sweet land where she won't be an outsider. Scared and desperate despite her cool facade, Jolene becomes a victim in every relationship. If the story's denouement veers too close to soap opera, Doctorow's empathetic character portrayal redeems the plot twists. The most riveting narrative, "Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden," describes a presidential administration that is secretive, arrogant and contemptuous of ordinary citizens. In this knowing treatment of the cynical abuse of power, Doctorow uses the spare, laconic style endemic to thrillers and builds suspense with sure strokes. Boring like a laser into the failures of the American dream, he captures the resilience of those who won't accept defeat.
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From Bookmarks Magazine

Each critic professes great respect for Doctorow, who, at age 73 and many awards later, has earned it. However, there the split begins. Many critics hail these stories, four of which were published previously in The New Yorker, as an achievement that perfectly captures the American nation’s mood, its aberrant characters, and dark underbelly. But others dismiss the book as a slim, shallow effort that does not live up to Doctorow’s past work. Common complaints? “A House on the Plains” doesn’t fit in with the other four stories, and “Child, Found Dead in the Rose Garden,” which could have been a powerful political piece, doesn’t live up to its promise.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (May 4, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400062047
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400062041
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 0.7 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #579,887 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

E. L. Doctorow's works of fiction include Homer & Langley, The March, Billy Bathgate, Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, City of God, Welcome to Hard Times, Loon Lake, World's Fair, The Waterworks, and All the Time in the World. Among his honors are the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, two PEN/Faulkner awards, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. In 2009 he was short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize honoring a writer's lifetime achievement in fiction, and in 2012 he won the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, given to an author whose "scale of achievement over a sustained career [places] him . . . in the highest rank of American literature." In 2013 the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Gold Medal for Fiction.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Grady Harp HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 20, 2004
Format: Hardcover
SWEET LAND STORIES is another superlative venture for E.L. Doctorow, one of the very finest writers in the country. Though known best for his larger tomes that mingle history and fiction as well as anyone has ever done, this small book of five stories reveals a master in creating characters and stories in a few pages that become indelible in the reader's mind. In his hands the most apparently simple settings become backdrops for complex, extensive tapestries that reveal how the 'little man/woman' can be pitched and tossed into the most bizarre tangle of events and yet somehow survive. In a time when many of us worry about the spiritual vacuum of life in the 21st Century, when the individual seems buried in the media pile of homogenation, look to Doctorow's fertile mind to remember and perhaps redefine the role of the Everyman. These stories are varied and extraordinarily well written: 'A House on the Plains' seems to be a tale of survival found in fleeing an urban center to a new life for a family on the plains, only to become a wholly different surprising macabre tale in the end: 'Baby Wilson' focuses on a couple who walk out a hospital with someone else's baby, flee, and watch their lives mutate; 'Walter John Harmon' concerns a community of brainwashed folk under the influence of a Spiritual Leader and the consequences of manipulation in the religion realm; 'Jolene: A Life' follows the course of an abused orphan through the country as she moves from one bad husband to the next - holding our hearts in her hand; 'Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden' is Doctorow's indictment of the credibility gap in the White House management of Intelligence sharing - a different and terrifying aside on terrorism so much in focus today. Doctorow tells these stories with elegant prose, terse and delicate economy, and once again proves he can spin a yarn better than most writers active today. A Brilliant Collection!
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Mercedes J. VINE VOICE on November 6, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I've said I don't know how many times that I really don't like short stories. But every now and then I'll pick up a short story book, and I'm usually always disappointed. Well, not this time. These 5 stories grab your attention from start to finish.

The first...A House On The Plains, is the tale of a mother and son and their murderous means of living, and how they continue to get away with it. The second...Baby Wilson, is the story of two lovers. A shady man, and a delusional woman who kidnaps a newborn child and tries to pass it off as their own, while the man finds a way to get them out of the mess she created.

The third...Jolene: A Life, was my favorite. We meet Jolene at the age of fifteen. An orphan who over the span of 10 yrs. goes through three husbands, a stint in a psychiatric hospital, a mobster boyfriend, living the high life, being homeless, and countless jobs, some pretty gritty. The fourth...Walter John Harmon, is an inside look at life in a cult. Members give all their wealth and possessions to 'prophet' Walter John Harmon in exchange for a peaceful and clean community. But they are so disillusioned, they cannot comprehend when he betrays them.

And finally...Child, Dead, In The Rose Garden. This was my least favorite. A dead child is found in the White House Rose Garden after an event. Special Agent Molloy sets out trying to find the answers as to who, why, and how this act was carried out. I definitely recommend this book. The stories are short and very intense. I will most certainly be giving more of Mr. Doctorow's books a chance.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Short stories are quite a challenge. You have to establish characters, mood, setting, conflict and context quickly. Then you have to move forward surely to your target with little wasted effort. If you accomplish all that, you only succeed if the story teaches you something that you find compelling. By those standards, the five stories in Sweet Land Stories are a tour de force.

I was surprised to find this because I find Mr. Doctorow's novels to move in a very leisurely pace. But here, that pace turns into just the right speed.

What the stories have in common is that you enter into worlds that operate at the fringes of society rather than near their center. So your characters have different problems than you and I think about every day. They also have unique solutions to their problems. The shift in focus is so complete that it's almost like reading science fiction. But the shift has a tether back to our lives . . . a tether that makes the lessons universal for us all. It's very impressive.

In the first story, A House on the Plains, we have an attractive mother and her son who find themselves living on a farm they don't know how to operate after the mother's husband died in Chicago. The mother likes men. What they do next will surprise you with its chilling elements. The story is told from the perspective of the son which makes it quite macabre. What is our responsibility to our parents . . . and to our fellow humans?

Baby Wilson will haunt you. A young woman decides to kidnap a baby. She's convinced the baby is hers. How will her boyfriend deal with this? You will find yourself in the shoes of the boyfriend as you share his dilemma. How do you protect the baby and your girlfriend?
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