REVIEW: “Bad Penny” by Carrie Laben

Review of Carrie Laben, “Bad Penny”, Apex Magazine 100: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

If there’s one thing that irks me (and there are many things that irk me), it’s making history too tidy. I hate it when people assume that any one group or country was a monolithic entity with everyone in agreement. No, people of the past were as fractured and contentious as we are today. Which is one of the reasons why I so enjoyed reading “Bad Penny” – the whole story is about a town in western New York that ceded from the Union to support the Confederacy during the Civil War. Enough Northerners supported the Confederacy (or at least objected to the war) that there was a derogatory nickname for them: Copperheads. Real life details about the nickname and its overlap with the name of a poisonous snake not native to the region are both used to excellent effect in this story.

You’re going to want to pay attention to names and family relationships as you read, because this story takes place in 1946, but deals with the aftermath of a decision made in 1861. I didn’t play close enough attention to the third paragraph, leading to confusion until I started again from the beginning. This was my fault, and not a flaw in the storytelling.

This is a ghost story, but it’s the most complex ghost story I can remember reading. It’s about history and family and the difficulties of righting a wrong decision, how people get swept up in romantic notions and what that can lead to. It’s a story that rewards rereading; there’s too much nuance and foreshadowing and layers of detail to pick up in one go.