Book review: The Annie Year is a story of dignity, integrity

Stephanie Wilbur Ash, creative writing Assistant Professor Geoff Herbach’s wife, has written her first novel, The Annie Year, which released in publication early October. Although she wrote based on a stereotyped small town, she wanted to reach even deeper truths in how daily life there is lived amidst struggles.

“It’s a true work of fiction, not memoir or autobiographical fiction, so aside from the small-town setting and the fact that my character’s dad was a CPA like my dad, there are few details that would point to my personal life,” Ash wrote in an email interview. “Tandy spends time attending musical theater, one of my loves, but she does so begrudgingly.”

It took over a decade for Ash to polish the book because of her protagonist, Tandy.

“There is something really moving and relatable in the chip she has on her shoulder about living in her small town her whole life,” Ash said. “I simply loved the character—I couldn’t let her go.”

During the writing process, Ash acknowledged her appreciation for her husband, Professor Herbach in his constant support of her.

“I have had some pretty loving encouragement at home,” Ash said.

Ash also said her inspiration stemmed from the Paul Gruchow “What We Teach Our Rural Children.” Ash said that Gruchow’s answer rested within a specific line: “If you were any good, you wouldn’t be here.” Ash added, “I think Tandy believes that, and yet, she works so hard to be good, and that pisses her off. I think even people who are not from small towns can relate to the desire to ‘be good’ while living a life of moral ambiguity. And those who are from small towns really can relate.”

While her book explores problems such as meth addiction problem and includes a part where a high school actress is drunk onstage, she sprinkled light-hearted humor throughout the plot. Ash also has loving extended relatives in scattered small towns across the Midwest and equally enjoys the outdoors and wide open spaces. So when asked what was her story about getting away from her small town, Ash clarified her feelings on the matter.

“I don’t feel like I ‘escaped’ my small town,” she answered. “It was not about breaking free from an oppressive regime. My leaving was about the lack of viable work for someone with my skill set and interests and curiosity.”

Her skill set consists of reporting, writing, and editing, especially a love of the variety that she discovered was only available in large metropolitan areas. So while she possessed a fondness for her own town filled with its own memories, she realized it was time she needed to let go.

Ash hopes when people read her book, they will learn that there is value and dignity in caring for others and in being a person of integrity, no matter where you are, as well as a value in forgiveness and acceptance.

“In the end, in my book, the quality judgments made by Tandy are on herself, not on others individually, even those who have wronged her or her town as a whole,” Ash concluded.
“That says a lot about her as a character, and I hope it says a lot about the people I know and love in small, rural communities.”

Ash will host a book party at Subtext Books in St. Paul this weekend on Saturday starting a 6:30 p.m. with food and music guests A.J. Piga, Niki Becker, and Colleen and Laura Borgendale who will perform original songs from Ash’s universe in her novel The Annie Year.

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