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Works

The Thing with Willie
Stories of Two Families

These wise, humorous, and poignant stories explore the parallel paths of two families, one white and one African American, as they confront profound historical developments of the twentieth century. The book opens with the Great Depression and its tragic impact on Willie, a black oysterman, and then moves back and forth in time to encompass the Galveston hurricane of 1900, New Orleans corruption in the 1930s, wartime Vietnam, and the Fourth of July millennium celebration on Galveston beach. These climactic events challenge and illuminate the lives of Sagstetter’s buoyant and resourceful characters, including Laurena, a young jeweler in Oaxaca; Anna, a devoted chef in Galveston; Eva, a World War II ham radio operator; Speaker of the House Scott Preston, adrift in a dark gallery of Asian statues; Louis, a shoe salesman obsessed with gemstones; and Charlotte, an African American linguist. Largely set in the maverick culture of a Texas leavened by the fascinating influence of Asia, and written in lyrical prose, these stories stand alone, but together they consider the transformative power of beauty, human purpose embodied in work, and intercultural relationships that once embraced abide through the century.

Karen Sagstetter’s wide and wise knowledge of the world gives vivid life to the wondrous interlocking stories that make up The Thing with Willie. From the emotional complexities of the title story—first-place winner of the prestigious Glimmer Train short-story competition—to “Sapphire Street”’s beautifully nuanced portrait of a shoestore owner’s life of quiet desperation, to the gripping, cinematic “Letters Home” and its depiction of Americans in Vietnam during the war, Sagstetter gives us a stunning series of narratives that traverse time and space.

Terence Winch
writer and musician, author of Boy Drinkers, Falling Out of Bed in a Room with No Floor, and other books


Here is an exceptional collection of intensely humane and entertaining stories. Writing with tenderness and humor, Karen Sagstetter shows how two families with little in common share many of the same struggles. Hurricanes, war, and hardship unite them in the most unexpected ways, and in story after story, resilient family members take poignant actions that allow deep wounds to mend.

Mary Kay Zuravleff
author of Man Alive!, The Bowl Is Already Broken, and The Frequency of Souls