Refund by Karen E. Bender: A Book Review

I just finished reading Refund, a collection of short stories written by author Karen E. Bender and published by Counterpoint Press. All of the stories center around the question of money in a post 9/11 economy for characters who are used to being able to make a living. With an eye that is beyond observant and almost prescient, Ms. Bender reveals exactly what is at stake when people’s livelihoods are threatened. Her characters scramble for dignity, survival, and a sense of selfhood while the systems that are supposed to sustain them crumble away.

For me, reading this collection of stories was an experience in validation. I could have been a character in Refund.  On a cold day in January of 2009, sixty-four of my colleagues and I learned in a meeting that the school we worked for would be closing, and all of us would be dumped together into the worst job market any of us had ever seen. I gave myself fifteen minutes to feel afraid. It would take that long for me to get in my car, fill it with gas, and arrive at my youngest daughters’ expensive Montessori daycare.  For fifteen minutes I would allow myself to understand what the loss of my salary would mean to my family.

The mortgage on the house my husband and I had bought four years before was unwieldy.  The raises we’d been promised had given way to salary cuts. We were frogs in boiling water, the recession’s toll both personal and bewildering. We had done everything right.

We were educators. We were diligent in our frugality and careful planning. We had waited to buy a home. Our two daughters were in private schools that we sacrificed to afford. We had always told ourselves that money wasn’t the important thing. Now it was the most important thing. The loss of my salary would mean the total upheaval of our lives.

In Refund, an untenable job situation forces a family to uproot and move to the South, where they find themselves in a community where no one wants them except a Rabbi and his wife with whom they have nothing in common. A young teacher is moved by the nearly banal spectre of violence to seek a moment of grace with a gifted student at any cost. An old television producer rails against the reality that money can’t buy the one thing he desires more than anything in his life. A young mother faces a pregnancy she can ill afford, in any sense of the word.

As for me, after fifteen minutes of despair I gathered my children, sent a few emails, and landed a solid job prospect by the time my husband came home from work. We kept our house, and the children kept their schools. But everything was different. As the economy worsened, so did my power and status as an employee. I never was allowed to forget that I was lucky to have a job. I never enjoyed a single day of feeling secure in my position. I was getting a taste of what the working poor in this country contend with as a matter of course.

The stress of daily living changed the trajectory of my family’s lives in ways I am only just beginning to understand. I had been looking forward to a mid-life of security, if not luxury. Our dreams were modest and measured. The things we wanted for ourselves and our daughters not too much to ask. During the recession, everything was too much to ask.

The collection of stories in Refund is art I would have expected to have been made maybe ten years from now. The dust has barely settled in this post 9/11, post-recession time. Yet here are stories that tell profound truths about the compromises and brokenness that the past fourteen years have wrought.

As I emerge blinking into a time of seemingly expanding possibilities, I don’t trust the ground as I did before that hard meeting in the library of a school I loved. Since then, I’ve accumulated two more credentials, a Masters degree, and two side jobs writing and consulting. I am privileged enough to have had the opportunity to beef up my resume. I read a lot of articles about tips for relieving stress, but after the past six years it feels smarter to be at least a little tense.

The characters in Refund have lives that despite their best efforts are prone to upheaval at any time. It is a collection of stories for exactly this moment, yet will remain relevant as long as money is any kind of important thing. My hope is that compassion and an increase in equality of opportunity become the most important things as we go forward. Ms. Bender reminds this reader of the toll on our humanity otherwise. I highly recommend.

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