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The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals
Table of Contents
About The Book
From the winner of the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction comes a tender and funny debut novel, set over one emotionally charged weekend at an animal sanctuary in western Kansas, where maternal, romantic, and community bonds are tested in the wake of an estranged daughter’s homecoming.
The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals is in trouble.
It’s late 2016 when Ariel discovers that her mother Mona’s animal sanctuary in Western Kansas has not only been the target of anti-Semitic hate crimes—but that it’s also for sale, due to hidden financial ruin. Ariel, living a new life in progressive Lawrence, and estranged from her mother for six long years, knows she has to return to her childhood home—especially since her own past may have played a role in the attack on the sanctuary. Ariel expects tension, maybe even fury, but she doesn’t anticipate that her first love, a ranch hand named Gideon, will still be working at the Bright Side.
Back in Lawrence, Ariel’s charming but hapless fiancé, Dex, grows paranoid about her sudden departure. After uncovering Mona’s address, he sets out to confront Ariel, but instead finds her grappling with the life she’s abandoned. Amid the reparations with her mother, it’s clear that Ariel is questioning the meaning of her life in Lawrence, and whether she belongs with Dex or with someone else, somewhere else.
Acclaimed writer Pam Houston says that “Mandelbaum is wise beyond her years and twice as talented,” and The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals poignantly explores the unique love and tension between mothers and daughters, and humans and animals alike. Perceptive and funny, moving and eloquent, and ultimately buoyant, Mandelbaum offers a panoramic view of family and forgiveness, and of the meaning of home. Her debut reminds us that love provides refuge, and underscores our similarities as human beings, no matter how alone or far apart we may feel.
It was midnight in Kansas, and the bigots were awake. The brothers’ house was like all the other houses in St. Clare: wind-torn and lonely with a roof that drooped as if tired. Light played against the windows, causing the interior to flicker and grin. Sitting in her ’85 Chevy, Old Baby, Mona imagined the Fuller brothers inside, shirtless and drinking cheap beer, probably watching one of those mean reality shows about someone who’s morbidly obese or has too many children. More likely, they were watching Fox News.
Go to sleep, little racists, she chanted in her head.
When the house finally blinked into darkness, Mona waited fifteen more minutes, just to be safe. It was strange to sit alone in her truck, without any animals. She kept expecting a wet nose to stamp her neck. To reach an arm back and touch fur. To hear the jingle of a collar. After all these years, she was used to feeling lonely, but she was not used to being alone.
When she was certain the brothers were asleep, she took a deep breath and stepped out into the star-heavy night. The air smelled sweet, of dried autumn grass, but also dirty, like cow pies. The night was so quiet Mona imagined all the birds and bugs holding their breath, trying to hear infinity. On nights like these, she imagined the sky as a blacktop road stretching all the way from St. Clare to Lawrence, where her daughter, Ariel, had run off to six years before. On nights like these, she wondered if Ariel was looking at the same sky.
Heart pounding, she made her way to the pasture’s corner, where the reason for the night’s adventure stood facing the road. In the dark, she could hardly make out the sign’s letters, stamped with all the careless glory of a lower-back tattoo. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.
She was not an immoral person and felt a flicker of guilt for stealing, that most basic of human rules, but then she remembered who the brothers were—the same men who’d reported one of their workers, a young man named Joss, to ICE; men who rode around with a bumper sticker on their truck that read, WELL-BEHAVED WOMEN MAKE SANDWICHES. Every time she saw their truck, she wanted to scratch the sticker with her pocketknife, but she had learned, over the years, not to make trouble, because trouble for her meant trouble for the animals, and trouble for the animals was not something she cared to risk. Until now.
This was October, the presidential election just around the corner, and she wanted to do something bold. With the animal sanctuary up for sale, she needed new ways to feel powerful, lest she drop dead the moment she signed over the Bright Side. She’d made a couple of calls to her representatives, but the whole thing felt silly. (“You’re a mouse complaining to the humans about the glue traps,” her ranch hand, Gideon, had put it.) This was Kansas, after all. So here she was. Maybe she was acting a touch crazy, but so was everyone else. At least her crazy felt right.
The sign had looked smaller from the road, like something you could pick up and toss so long as you had enough adrenaline going. Now, face-to-face with it, she realized the sign was not only taller than her but also longer across than her arms could reach.
Damn it, she thought. She would need help.
Hers had always been the kind of life in which she had only a couple of people to call. She was unlike the buttoned-up, mosquito-brained women of St. Clare, with their potlucks and Bible studies and cadres of children and grandchildren. Women who went to church and showered every day, whose husbands referred to them as “darling” or “doll.” Even if she’d wanted to (which she did not), the women of St. Clare wouldn’t have let her run in their circles anyway, not even if she showed up with her hair flat-ironed, nails painted pink. Not that she owned a flat iron. Or nail polish. She had a hair dryer, but that was for the dogs after their baths.
She knew her role. She was the crazy Jewish lady who kept hundreds of animals but not a single piece of china. Does she even own a comb? she’d once heard Millie Hunter ask Deb Canright at the swap meet, to which Deb had said: I hear she doesn’t even use toilet paper. She just goes on the lawn with the dogs. She’d grown used to the looks people gave her in town, to the feeling of being watched and monitored like an active volcano. She knew she smelled like shit and looked wild with her unwashed hair and dirty clothes. But she didn’t care. To her, the dirtier she looked, the harder it meant she was working.
It was true she had only a few friends, but they were good people. Her people. And so, she called the one person she knew would always answer, not only because he was steady as a clock but also because she wrote his paychecks. He picked up on the second ring.
“Mona?” Gideon asked, voice gravelly with sleep.
“Come on out to the Fuller place. I need your help.”
“What are you doing out there?”
“I’ll tell you when you get here.”
“You’re not tipping cows, are you?”
“Gideon, just hurry.”
She blinked her headlamp three times, to signal her location. Eventually he found the stepladder and joined her on the other side of the Fullers’ fence. He was in his usual uniform: blue jeans and the red-and-green-checkered Pendleton Ariel had gifted him years before. It was the only relic of Ariel he refused to retire after she ran away, not for any sentimental reason, Mona knew, but because it was a good coat. What Gideon didn’t know was that it had originally belonged to Mona’s ex-husband, Daniel, and that whenever Gideon wore it, Mona was reminded both of the husband who had left her and the daughter who had run away.
“You didn’t kill anyone, did you?” Gideon asked, the smile audible in his voice.
She clicked off her headlamp, the world dissolving into darkness. “Not this time.”
When she told him the plan, he did not disapprove as she worried he might. He did not even seem surprised. “Let’s be quick then,” he said briskly. “If anyone drives by, it’s game over.”
They managed to get the sign from the ground, the stakes sliding out like candles from a birthday cake. It really was no problem, once you had enough hands on it. Now the trouble was getting it over the barbed wire. Gideon went first so Mona could pass the sign from the other side. He must have snagged himself on a barb because he jumped back, the sign hitting the fence post and ringing out like a gong from a mountaintop. From the distant barn, one of the Fullers’ cows mooed, then another, until a game of cow telephone filled the night.
When a light in the brothers’ house flashed on, Mona felt an anvil of terror fall through her body. “Shit,” she said.
They waited, frozen, fingers aching from the cold. When the light finally went off again, Mona exhaled, felt the anvil begin to lift. “All right,” she said, “let’s hurry.”
They moved in total silence. Soon they were over the fence and en route to the truck, where they set the sign into the bed. When it was done, they quietly high-fived and then took a moment to look around them, at the sky and the moon and the miles of dark prairie and twinkly star stuff holding them in place. Their home. Only then did Gideon ask, “So why did we just do that?”
“Because,” Mona said. “We’re resisting.”
“You mean stealing?”
“I said resisting, and that’s what I meant.”
Back at the sanctuary, Mona poured two glasses of semi-flat Big K and opened a box of rock-hard Thin Mints circa who-knows-when. The house dogs danced around, confused but excited the humans were up late. For the first time in a long time, Mona felt hopeful. She wondered if this could be her new calling after the sanctuary sold, the cartoon-strip version of her life. She’d travel the country, pilfering signs. Eventually a masked Republican senator would punch her in the stomach—POW!—and throw her in the clinker.
“What happens if they find out it was us?” Gideon asked, donning his coat to head to bed. He lived in an old camper van on the other end of the property. The Man Van, Ariel had called it.
“But if they do?”
“There’s no use worrying about what’s not going to happen.”
By the time Mona crawled into bed it was nearly two in the morning. And yet, when she woke three hours later to start her chores, she felt invigorated. Stealing the sign was the closest thing to fun she’d had in years.
The older brother, Big John, came roaring down Sanctuary Road at noon the next day, his truck kicking up dust as it pulled through the gate. Mona’s first instinct was to duck into the barn. The next was to somehow cover up the sign, which was still in the back of her truck, visible to the world.
To keep him from pulling up to where her truck was parked, she jogged down the drive to meet him. She wished Gideon was around, but he’d gone to Middleton to buy kitty litter.
Big John rolled down his window.
“Can I help you?” Mona asked, trying to keep the fear out of her voice.
“Let me park, and I’ll explain myself.” He pulled off to the side of the driveway, taking care to avoid the dogs weaving around his truck. When he got out, Mona felt a little relieved; Big John was always smaller in person than she remembered. He wore a green plaid shirt tucked into jeans. The corner of a strawberry Nutri-Grain bar poked out from his pocket.
“Warm day for October, isn’t it?”
“You can thank climate change for that,” Mona said, knowing it would piss him off.
“Well,” he said, chuckling, “I don’t know about that.”
“You here for a dog?” she asked, playing it cool. “I’ve got a real sweet heeler who could use a home.”
“The reason I’m here is slightly more serious than that.”
Mona felt the anvil again. Here it was. Would he hurt her? Would he hurt the animals? As if cued, two of the dogs who’d circled his truck came over and sniffed his feet. A cattle dog named Old Crow lifted his leg near Big John’s shoe, his eyes flicking up toward Big John as if to ask: What do you think about this, tough guy?
“Cute,” said Big John, side-stepping the urine.
“It means ‘welcome’ in dog.”
“Look,” he said, clearly bothered. “I’m here because I’m interested in your property. I can’t meet your asking price, but if you’re willing to wiggle, I can keep the equines, the pigs, the sheep. The dogs and cats would have to go, of course. And the birds and whatever other creepy crawlies you got, but all the farm animals can stay. I’d do that for you. As a neighbor. It’s the offer I’m willing to make.”
It took a moment for Mona to process what he was saying. That he was not here about the sign. That he had not come to accuse or confront her. “You want to buy the Bright Side?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be the Bright Side under my name. It’d be a Fuller ranch. An extension of our grandma’s property—our property. This way, Sydney and I can stay close but not under the same roof.” He smiled. “I know how it looks to everyone in town, two grown brothers living together in our grammie’s old house.”
Mona was feeling too many things at once. She hated the Fuller brothers, but here was Big John, with his dirty sneakers and ugly haircut. He seemed sort of pathetic. Harmless, even. Then there was the matter of the sign. If he walked thirty steps toward the house, around the oxbow bend in the drive, it would come into view.
“I don’t know,” Mona said. “I honestly wasn’t expecting any offers this soon. It just went up last week.”
“I know how hard it must be, to let this place go. Which is why I’m hoping my offer will make it easier. I could give you time to transition, and you wouldn’t have the worry of finding homes for the big animals. Nothing has to go fast. I’m also willing to take on your worker—the Mexican one. What’s his name? Gary?”
“Gideon. And he’s from Texas, actually.”
Big John waved a dismissive hand. “Whatever. I’m willing to keep him on, to manage the animals. Whatever you’re paying him, I’ll match it plus some. So long as he’s legal.”
“I just said he was born in Texas.”
“Well, all right then. God bless Texas.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Why not? I get the land at a discount, you get the peace of mind. We’re neighbors. That’s what neighbors do.” He smiled, revealing a piece of something green between his front teeth.
“The pigs and the chickens—you wouldn’t slaughter them? Or sell them to someone who’s going to slaughter them?”
“We’ll keep them until they die, and then we’ll use the land for something else. That’s the deal I’m willing to make. I won’t promise back rubs or bedtime stories or whatever else they’re used to, but I can promise they won’t become bacon.”
She thought of the bumper sticker and then of Joss. Mona hadn’t known Joss well, but he would come over once a month to play cribbage with Gideon, the two of them eating microwave popcorn and drinking Hamm’s, Joss quizzing Gideon on his Spanish. Giggling like teenagers at jokes Mona didn’t get. On one of these nights, Joss fell in love with a cat named Cat Stevens whom he ended up taking home. Who knew where Cat Stevens was now? Nobody had seen Joss since August.
This is a bad man, she reminded herself, looking at Big John. But here he was, in the flesh, trying to do something kind. The truth was that Mona hadn’t spoken much to Big John or his little brother, Sydney, over the years. They’d moved to St. Clare when they were teenagers, to live with their grandmother Loretta after their parents died in a car wreck. Mona and Loretta hadn’t exactly been friends, but they’d lived on the same road, and in a town as small as St. Clare, that counted for something. When Loretta passed the year before, it had disturbed her how quickly the brothers, now men, overhauled their grandma’s estate. They wasted no time replacing her ceramic garden frogs with NO TRESPASSING signs, swapping her colorful lawn pinwheels for American flags, her bird baths for blank space, her floral curtains for white slatted blinds. With the money she left them, they expanded her herd of Jersey cows along with the small crew of workers who knew how to turn their milk into money. Their final bit of maintenance was to report Joss to ICE.
Since Loretta’s death, Mona had only spoken with Big John in passing—at the post office, in the hardware store—mostly about the weather or the state of the animals. How he’d lost a cow to a breached birth or how Mona had lost a litter of puppies to Bordetella. They were neighbors, in that they lived miles apart on a road on which not many people lived. When it stormed, they saw the same lightning. When the sun shone, their animals felt the same heat. Really, it was the younger one, Sydney, who had always creeped her out—the skull tattoo on his neck, the bags beneath his eyes. He and Ariel had been friends when they were in middle school, after the brothers first moved to St. Clare. Mona never did figure out why they stopped spending time together, and although she’d felt disappointed at first, that her daughter had lost her only friend, she was eventually relieved. A few months before, Gideon had shown her Sydney’s blog, a sloppily written eyesore filled with neon fonts and run-on sentences in all caps. She’d read a few paragraphs but had to stop after a line about the streets running red with the blood of homosexuals.
“I need to think,” was what she told Big John. “Can you give me time to think?”
“Certainly. Nothing’s set in stone. We’re working with Play-Doh here. That’s all.”
“All right,” Mona said, although she couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow, the Bright Side was already his.
Big John pulled up his jeans and nodded toward the house. “Mind if I poke my head in?”
“Oh—you don’t want to do that. It’s a mess in there. Really. We can set up another time.”
“Sydney and me, we’re not too tidy ourselves. Two bachelors in a rancher. You can only imagine.” He was already making his way up the driveway, which would have pissed Mona off even if the sign wasn’t in her truck.
“Really, we’ll do it another time.” She held her hands out like stop signs. “Please.”
“Just a glance,” he said. “In and out.”
“This is my property,” she said, a new anger in her voice. An anger that felt good.
But by now he had already rounded the curve and spotted Mona’s truck. “What in the name…” he said, eyes locked on the sign. When he looked back at her, he was smiling. “I figured it was teenagers from another town. Never would have suspected a grown woman.”
This made Mona laugh. As if a grown woman wasn’t capable of stealing a sign. A voice in her head said, Well, you did need Gideon’s help, and she said to this voice, Shut it.
“You know, maybe if you and your brother quit underestimating grown women you’d find a couple to make you sandwiches.”
“That asinine bumper sticker on your truck. About well-behaved women making sandwiches.”
“I bought that truck on Craigslist—the sticker came with the rig.”
“And you didn’t bother to take it off?”
“I thought it was kind of funny.”
“Well. My point exactly.”
“And what point is that?”
“That you’re an asshole.” She could feel her heart racing—how long had it been since she’d called someone an asshole? “And a chauvinist.”
He smiled, a mean smile. “Look at you, Miss Dictionary. Now if you’ll excuse me. I have some phone calls to make.” From his back pocket he removed his phone and took a series of pictures. “And to think I came out here to do a nice thing.”
“You can have the sign back if you really want it,” Mona said, feeling that although she was not in immediate danger, there was danger lurking for her ahead. It was stupid of her to call him an asshole. It was stupid of her to have stolen the sign. She thought of what it would mean, for Gideon to keep his job. For the farm animals to stay on the property. There wouldn’t be a better deal coming.
Sensing something was awry, a pack of dogs, led by Old Crow, began to approach Big John. A German shepherd named Katydid leaned into Mona’s side, as if to say: I’m here if you need me.
“I don’t want the sign,” said Big John. “What I want is for you to call off your fucking dogs, because if they run in front of my truck, I’m not stopping.” He slammed his door. Engine growling, he made an aggressive U-turn, kicking up a cloud of dirt along the way. He was not joking about not stopping. Mona began frantically calling for the dogs, grabbing the ones closest to her by the scruffs of their necks.
Big John sped out the driveway, not bothering to close the gate.
All day, Mona waited for something to happen. When Sheriff Donner eventually showed up, she felt almost relieved. She’d introduced Donner to the love of his life, a golden retriever named Red Dog, and for this, she knew, she could get away with anything this side of murder. She still remembered the day Donner came around looking to adopt, how he’d halted in front of Red Dog’s pen as if a physical force had stopped him. Red Dog was only a bag of bones, afflicted with ear mites, heartworms, and a big gray wart that sat on his lip like a tiny raw meatball. “That wart will fall clean off in a month and you’ll never know it was there,” Mona had told the sheriff. She was worried about Red Dog, who’d been at the Bright Side for nearly three months—unusual for golden retriever puppies. Donner had looked at her, a flare of hurt in his eyes. “Are you suggesting he isn’t perfect the way he is?” Here was a grown man, kissing a dog on his warty black lips. From then on, whenever Mona ran into them, Red Dog would look at Donner, as if to remind him that even though he was about to happy-jump all over this lady he used to love, he still loved Donner first, best, and last. And so, when Donner stepped out of his car, sans Red Dog, Mona worried, for the first time, whether she might really be in trouble.
“You shouldn’t have done it,” Donner said. He’d parked his car in the gravel visitors’ lot and walked the rest of the way to where Mona was sitting on the front porch, cutting dreadlocks from the fur of her wolfhound, Opal. The old dog had fallen asleep as soon as she heard the scissors—she’d always loved a good pampering.
“Don’t play with me, Mona.”
“Well, who says I did it anyways? What happened to innocent until proven guilty?”
“I can see the sign right there.” Donner pointed to the truck where the sign still lay. Why should she have moved it? Big John had already taken photos. What was done was done.
“Can’t a woman have a sign?”
“We all know it’s not yours, Mona.”
“Can you prove it?”
“Can you?” asked Donner, his tired eyes meeting hers. “Look, I know you’re going through a lot. I’m the last person who wants to see you sell this place—you do good work. Not everyone here understands that, but I do. But when it comes to the law, I have to draw a line. I have voters, and those voters have expectations. Especially now, with things the way they are.”
“Just spit it out, Donner.”
“I’m saying Fuller wants me to press charges, and there’s enough evidence for me to do it, but between you, me, and the lamppost, I don’t really want to. I’m saying this is a warning. I’m saying if he presses the subject, the next time I come here I’ll be coming with a warrant.”
“Oh, don’t be dramatic,” she said, cutting a carrot-sized dreadlock from Opal’s underbelly.
He said, “Don’t be dumb.”
Reading Group Guide
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The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals is in trouble.
In late 2016, Ariel discovers that her mother Mona’s animal sanctuary has not only been the target of anti-Semitic hate crimes but is also for sale due to hidden financial ruin. Ariel, living a new life in progressive Lawrence and estranged from her mother for six long years, knows she must return to her childhood home in western Kansas. Ariel anticipates the tense reunion with her mother but is surprised to find that her first love, a ranch hand named Gideon, is still living at the Bright Side.
Meanwhile, in Lawrence, Ariel’s charming but hapless fiancé, Dex, grows paranoid about her mysterious departure. All he knows is that Ariel has gone to see her mother, a woman he’s heard nothing about. He uncovers Mona’s address and sets out to confront Ariel but arrives to find her grappling with the life she’s abandoned. While making amends with her mother, it’s clear that Ariel is questioning the meaning of her life in Lawrence and whether she belongs with Dex or with someone else, somewhere else.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. After Mona’s neighbor Sydney defaces the Bright Side with swastikas and anti-Semitic messages, Mona thinks: “How angry she was that Sydney had taken from her the one thing she’d always had: courage” (p. 31). Where do you think Mona gets her courage from? Why do you think Sydney’s crime took away her courage?
2. When Ariel is eighteen, she leaves home to attend the University of Kansas. What do you make of Ariel and Mona’s disagreement about Ariel leaving home? Based on their individual and collective histories, why do you think each of them reacted the way they did?
3. It’s revealed at different points in the book that both Gideon and Mona go to visit Ariel at college. What are their experiences of their trips to Lawrence? Why do neither of them make contact with Ariel? Do you think they tried hard enough to bring Ariel back into the fold? Why or why not?
4. Early on, Ariel can hear Mona’s voice in her head saying, “The pursuit [of life] shouldn’t be happiness, it should be helpfulness. Goodness” (p. 23). How do you think Mona came to this understanding of life’s purpose? How does it affect the decisions she makes in her own life? And how does it affect the way she tries to raise Ariel?
5. During a fight between Mona and her husband, he accuses her of being an absent mother and she responds that he’s “putting an untrue story onto our lives” (p. 56). What are some of other “untrue” stories that characters impose on one another? Are these honest mistakes, or the result of intentional mischaracterizations?
6. Gideon, the Bright Side’s ranch hand, is of Mexican American heritage and was born in Texas. In the beginning of the novel, Big John is preoccupied with making sure he’s “legal,” and later Ariel remembers a time years ago when “the guy at the gas station asked for Gideon’s green card” (p. 145). How is Gideon’s experience living in Kansas depicted in the novel? How does he handle the xenophobia he encounters? How do others around him handle it?
7. Sydney and Ariel used to be close, until they had a falling out in high school. Discuss their falling out and Sydney’s behavior in adulthood (his “date” with Joy, his blog, and his political views). Why do you think he ultimately burned the Bright Side’s barn?
8. Mona’s childhood was not easy. Her father was an alcoholic and emotionally abusive. As an adult, both her husband and daughter left her—albeit at different times and for different reasons. How do you think these experiences have affected Mona, and how does she cope with these instances of mistreatment and abandonment?
9. After Ariel tries to kiss Gideon, she hopes to apologize, thinking “she had confused the sensation of missing home with the sensation of missing him” (p. 188). What are all the parts that make up “home” for Ariel? Is her eventual homecoming what she expects it to be?
10. Describe Dex and Ariel’s relationship. How did they meet and how has their relationship evolved? How are they good for each other? Do you think their relationship lasted past the end of the novel?
11. Once Dex is out of Lawrence and performing manual labor at the sanctuary, he has a revelation that “masculinity was a small, quivering thing” (p. 226). What are the different representations of masculinity in this book? Is there one type that’s prized above others? How are masculinity and femininity perceived at the sanctuary, where the work is dirty and tough but the job is based in caretaking?
12. The novel is bookended by instances of Mona reacting to the conservatism of her neighbors—stealing Big John’s pro-Trump yard sign and getting into a physical altercation with a cashier. Why do you think Mona lashes out in these instances? Do you think her actions are justified? How would you handle bridging these community divides?
13. Even though the Bright Side is in trouble, Mona refuses Big John’s offer to buy the sanctuary and Coreen’s offer of financial assistance to keep it up and running. Why do you think Mona has such trouble accepting help? What do you think eventually happens to the Bright Side?
14. When Mona and Ariel finally reconcile, the chapter ends by comparing them to animals housed at the sanctuary, saying, “they [Mona and Ariel] were animals, weren’t they? Bodies that sought the comfort of other bodies, that needed affection to survive” (p. 319). What similarities do you see between the needs of the animals at the Bright Side and the needs of the people who take care of them? How are the animals like humans—and the humans like animals?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. There are many animal shelters and sanctuaries throughout the country that cater to any number of animals: dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs, goats, horses, donkeys—and even animals more exotic like turkeys, coyotes, wolves, chimpanzees, and elephants! Find a shelter close to you and volunteer as a group.
2. Consider reading another book that celebrates the lives of animals: Horse Crazy by Sarah Maslin Nir, H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, The Language of Butterflies by Wendy Williams, or Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz.
3. At one point, Joy tells Dex that Ariel will likely never move back home, because “You can miss something like crazy and still never want to go back” (p. 222). What are some things you miss about being a kid? About past homes you’ve lived in? What are the things you don’t miss?
4. The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals is preoccupied with the push and pull of individual autonomy versus familial obligation. Discuss as a group where you fall on that spectrum. Did you grow up in a family that valued autonomy or the strength of the collective? Would you do anything for your family? Are there limits or boundaries to your familial obligation?
A Conversation with Becky Mandelbaum
Q: Congratulations on publishing your debut novel, The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals! What has the experience of publishing this book been like? How much different has it been from the experience of writing the book?
A: Thank you! I’m so grateful and humbled that this story is now a book in the world. It always feels like magic when a project completes the journey from my brain onto a printed page and into the hands of readers. It’s surreal.
Although Bright Side isn’t my first book—I have a collection of stories, Bad Kansas—this publishing experience felt very new to me, and completely different from the experience of writing the book. Despite every single person showing nothing but kindness and support, I still find the world of publishing intimidating, which is not the case for writing.
Writing has always been my Room of Requirement. I go there when I need a break from the world, or when things feel overwhelming or hopeless. I love everything about writing and feel at home when I’m absorbed in my work. There’s nothing more liberating than letting loose on the page.
Publishing, then, is a complete 180. It’s vulnerable, public-facing, and makes me want to retreat. I imagine most writers feel this way. If the world were a party, writers would be the kids in the corner whispering to the dog, counting the minutes until it’s socially acceptable to go home and read in bed. In publishing, we have to be the person in the center of the room, dancing and singing, waving a book in each hand. That’s a hard leap, but it’s a worthy one if it helps connect the book to more readers.
Q: The backdrop of The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals is the election of Donald Trump. Why did you choose to set the novel in the wake of his election? What was your own experience like in November 2016?
A: I started this book when I was an undergrad at the University of Kansas and returned to it in the months following the 2016 election while caretaking a ranch that belongs to the writer Pam Houston. I was working with animals every day while news of the election spewed in from the outside world. My day-to-day life taking care of them was so peaceful and filled with the kindness of the animals—it was hard to square what was going on at the ranch, in my immediate life, with what was going on around the country.
As I was reworking the manuscript I’d started years before, the election kept inserting itself onto the page. It was everywhere, the only thing I could think about and the only thing people could talk about. Including it in the book felt like the only way to stay with the project, so I let it in. Once I did, I realized there were so many rich parallels between what was happening at the sanctuary and what was happening in the world. While the themes of caretaking, forgiveness, and unconditional love extend beyond the realm of any singular political moment, I do think they speak to what happened in 2016 as well as what’s happening in 2020.
Q: Publishers Weekly gave a glowing, starred review of your book, saying that “In Mandelbaum’s bighearted, emotionally intelligent tale, the love for animals proves irresistible.” In Bright Side, the animals function as characters in and of themselves. Do you have pets? Did you know you wanted to write a book about animals, or did they just naturally insert themselves in your writing?
A: I’ve been obsessed with animals since I was little, and I spent the last few years taking care of other peoples’ pets. Pet-sitting was how I kept my living costs low so I could have more time to write. It’s funny, because publishing this book afforded me the stability to finally adopt my own dog. I just signed a year-long lease for the first time in five years and now live with two dogs.
I volunteered at an animal sanctuary during college as part of a service learning trip. The sanctuary was chaotic, but I was in total admiration of the woman who ran it. She’d dedicated her whole life to this massive shelter operation that was clearly taking its toll on her physically, emotionally, and financially. She was a severe, no-nonsense person, but around the animals she was a complete softy. Everything about her life fascinated me: her commitment to the animals and how it affected her relationships with people, the logistics of her day-to-day life, the story of how she became who she was. The book grew from this fascination. I wondered, what would it look like if she had a family? How would that work?
Q: At its heart, Bright Side is a book about the relationship between a mother and a daughter. What interests you about this dynamic? Were there any other mother-daughter books you looked to while writing yours? Do you have any recommendations of other mother/daughter stories that are close to your heart?
A: It might be hard to tell from this book, but my mom and I have an incredible relationship. My dad left when I was little, so my mom has always been my number one support system. She’s my best friend and my biggest cheerleader. She’s who I call first with good news, and who I call first with bad news. She is the epitome of unconditional love—sometimes to a fault—and if there’s any of her in this book, it’s in Mona’s unrelenting dedication to the animals.
One of my family members suffers from addiction, and only several drafts into this book did I realize that Mona’s devotion to the animals could work as a metaphor for my mother’s devotion to this person. She has sacrificed everything to help this person—her time, energy, and money. Her freedom. I think often about the line between helping and hurting, and how love gets in the way of drawing this line with clarity. The Bright Side explores this line, how we dance around it, how it shapes the other lines in our life.
There are so many great mother-daughter books out there. Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, Marlena by Julie Buntin, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden are a few I read or reread while writing and revising this manuscript.
One of the best mother-daughter stories I’ve ever read is The First Day by Edward P. Jones. It captures the fusion of love, shame, embarrassment, admiration, and frustration that hums at the core of any authentic child-parent relationship.
Q: We get three perspectives in the book: Mona, Ariel, and Dex. How did you choose whose perspective to include? What does Dex’s point of view bring to the table? Did you consider giving any other characters a dedicated perspective?
A: When I started this book in college, I wrote only Ariel’s and Dex’s perspectives. In these early drafts, the book focused on their love story, so it made sense to only hear from them. When I rewrote the book in 2016, the mother-daughter story between Mona and Ariel became more central than the love story between Ariel and Dex, but I didn’t adjust the book’s structure to reflect this change.
I think it was my editor, Marysue Rucci, who suggested I add some chapters from Mona’s point of view. Once I started writing, I realized how badly I wanted to hear Mona’s voice. She had been pounding on my brain the whole time, asking to be let out. I’m really glad she has her own chapters now.
In retrospect, it also seems obvious that we need Mona’s perspective as a counterpoint to Dex’s. Mona and Dex both know a different version of Ariel—versions that don’t overlap until partway through the book. Mona knew Ariel for the first eighteen years of her life, but Dex has known Ariel since she started her new life in Lawrence. Their perspectives give us a full vision of Ariel, as others perceive her.
Q: The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals takes place entirely in Kansas, and you’re originally from Kansas. How did you go about creating a sense of place in a landscape you’re familiar with? Was it hard to write about your home state or did it come naturally? Did writing Bright Side feel different from writing Bad Kansas, your debut story collection that’s also set in the state?
A: I hardly wrote about Kansas when I lived there, but since leaving it’s the only place I want to explore in my work. When I started the book, the sanctuary was set in rural Texas, and Ariel and Dex lived in Austin. I’d been to Austin a couple times and was so in awe of it, I guess I wanted to write a whole book set there. When I returned to the book in 2016, I realized I needed to set it in Kansas, which is my true home.
I’ve never lived in western Kansas, but I wrote the book while living in rural Colorado and edited it while living in rural Washington, so St. Clare—which is a fictional place— is based roughly on those small towns, overlaid onto the topography of western Kansas. Writing about Lawrence was a blast because I love Lawrence so much. It’s my favorite town in the world.
Writing this book felt very different from writing Bad Kansas, but not because of place or setting. Writing short stories is hard, but it turns out writing a novel is much harder. Like, twenty times harder. I also prefer to write in first-person point of view, and typically lean into voice. Bright Side is all third-person, so that shift was new for me. I find it much easier to capture the spirit of a person when writing through their voice.
Q: Your book plays with themes of homecoming. What do you find intriguing about that concept? Have you had many homecomings in your own life? How did you approach writing about this complicated concept in your novel?
A: Ever since leaving Kansas, I’ve thought and written obsessively about home, both as a physical location and as a concept. I moved around a lot when I was very young—by the time I was eight I’d lived in seven houses—so when my mom finally settled my brothers and me in Wichita, that house and Kansas became deeply tied to my notion of home. Despite this attachment, I’ve moved numerous times in the last few years, hopping between house-sitting gigs and jobs in National Parks. I often feel like I’m still searching for my forever home but have come to accept that home can also operate as a state of mind. I can be at home wherever I feel loved and safe, regardless of physical location. Still, I miss Kansas.
My experience of constantly moving and having to start over in a place is definitely part of Bright Side. Mona moving her family from Wichita to St. Clare and Ariel moving from St. Clare to Lawrence are both narratives about what it means to enter a new space, and how setting shapes the person we become. Ariel would have become a different person had she stayed in St. Clare, just as Mona would have become a different person had she stayed in Wichita. I think both women grew and learned when they moved but also lost a part of themselves that would have blossomed had they stayed put.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals? How would you hope they reconsider their own relationships and purpose in light of what they’ve read in your pages?
A: My hope is that readers will consider their own caretaking roles, whatever they may be. We are all responsible for something, whether it’s the people in our lives, our work, our home, our land, our community, our pets, etc. Are we approaching these roles with kindness and patience? Are we putting aside ego and considering what’s best for the other party rather than what will make us feel righteous or important?
We can expand this mode of thinking to politics, too. I spend so much time thinking about what I want, and what’s best for people who share my values, but it’s more difficult to think about the needs of someone whose values, lifestyle, or interests don’t align with my own. While it’s essential to stand up for what we believe in, it’s also important to remember we are each one point on a web of humanity that has nearly eight billion other points. We’re all here together. If we are charged with caring for our fellow citizens, our country, our environment, then we have to remember that other peoples’ needs are as valid as our own.
Q: Are you working on anything now? And, if so, can you tell us about it?
A: I’m working on a novel about female friendship. The book follows two girls, Laney and Rue, as they come of age in Wichita in the early aughts. Laney is cerebral, bookish, and shy while Rue is a trouble-making extrovert. Despite how different they are, the two form a deep connection. The book is about how outside forces—their faith, men, class differences—challenge this connection throughout their adolescence and early adulthood. It’s jam-packed with early 2000s nostalgia, plus lots of potty humor. It’s also a story about mothers and daughters, Judaism, and writing.
- Publisher: S&S/Marysue Rucci Books (August 4, 2020)
- Length: 336 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982112981
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Raves and Reviews
"With heart, precision, and a fresh, resilient humor, The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals reveals the complicated connections between people and animals alike. . . . Mandelbaum is wise beyond her years and twice as talented.” —Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted and Cowboys Are My Weakness
"A story of reconciliation and forgiveness (and so many animals!) in the assured hand of a writer who understands that the hardest journeys we undertake are the ones in search of home." —Steven Rowley, bestselling author of Lily and the Octopus and The Editor
"A nuanced first novel... A timeless tale dressed in contemporary garb... A wise, big-hearted debut from a talented young writer." — MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE
"Mandelbaum’s heartwarming and sharp-witted debut features an estranged mother and daughter better at connecting with injured and abandoned animals than with each other... In Mandelbaum’s bighearted, emotionally intelligent tale, the love for animals proves irresistible."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Attention animal lovers, nature lovers, literary lovers—the Flannery O’Connor Award-winning author Becky Mandelbaum has written a book just for you. The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals is characterized by love the size of the Kansas sky, an indelible attachment to home, and enough dogs to comfort you through the complexities of a Trump administration." — Chicago Review of Books
"Warm-hearted...[A] tale of misplaced feelings and misunderstood souls that is chiefly characterized by home, irresistible animals, and the forgiving of old rifts. Mothers and daughters reunite, and dogs seal the deal, in a feel-good charmer." —
"This first novel is finely rendered, lightly dashed with humor, and littered with lots of animals." — Booklist
"Witty and original." — The National Book Review
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