In her latest stand-alone short story, Casual Day at the Crazy House, Helen Mallon deftly explores issues of family, race, madness, and acceptance all in the space of a few thousand words. The story follows a teenager named Olivia as she struggles with the knowledge that her father isn’t quite right. In fact, he’s so not-quite-right that he lives in the family’s bathroom and refuses to leave for fear that he might die. Adding to Olivia’s stress is her mother’s apparent nonchalance at the situation — she thinks it’s just a matter of bad feng shui — and a racist grandmother who speaks in ironically affected Quaker “plain” speech that laces her language with “thees” and “thys.” Meanwhile, graduation is looming, and Olivia is fascinated with a girl named Katy. To say her life is complicated is an understatement, but what teen’s life is ever simple? Indeed, the complications in this particular teen’s life will ring true to many young readers, while Mallon’s sensitive treatment of her characters and their issues lends emotional depth to the proceedings.
We all want to be accepted, Mallon’s story stresses, and we all want to be normal — but sometimes the only way to achieve both of those goals is to recognize that we’re all abnormal outsiders in one way or another. To put it another way, what we have in common is that we’re all different.