Wells Tower is a powerful writer who takes an abstract approach to exploring the complexities of relationships and the bonds between men and women, parents and children and just people in general. He has created a world of rough men whose lives are usually not going the right way and also strong women who have had to put up with more problems and stress than anyone could imagine. These themes are especially present in his short story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”, which recounts the life of a barbaric, Viking nation that lives to destroy and ravage other smaller nations.
In “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” the story is told from the point of view of Harald, who is also the narrator. In the first couple lines of the story Harald explains that their people have been experiencing crop-blights and “dragons”, and they blame these natural occurrences on a Norwegian monk named Naddod, he says “We all know who it was” referring to the monk. After much consideration Harald, not wanting to leave his wife, agrees to go with the other Vikings to the island where Naddod is, to kill him and stop the madness. It seems as though just about every man in their clan has had some trouble with a wife or a woman. Djarf, who was the boss on their ship and a “fool for warfare”, has no trouble leaving his wife for months at a time and she doesn’t seem to care either, this is made clear in the story, “So Djarf, whose wife was a sour, carp-mouthed thing and little argument for staying home, was agitating to hop back in the ship and go straighten things out in Northumbria.”. Another example of their women problems is Harald’s friend Gnut, “His wife had passed years ago, dead from bad milk, and now that she was gone, the part of Gnut that felt peaceful in a place that didn’t move beneath him had sickened and died as well.” After his wife passing, all he likes to do now is row.
Another theme presented multiple times in the story is the gruesomeness and barbaric rituals or acts, which is expected in a story about Vikings, but nonetheless is important. Our first encounter with this is when we learn about Djarf’s history, it explains he comes from a place where the people take a sick pleasure in the grisly sides of life and also he says, “They have a habit down there if they don’t like a child’s looks when he slides from the womb, they pitch him into the deep and wait for the next one.” This relates throwing a new born baby into the ocean as if it were just a rock. Another example of the clan’s barbaric nature is made clear when Djarf finds Naddod and, almost instantly, cuts his stomach open but leaves him alive on the ground. At his point Gnut turns to Harald and says ““Oh, Lord, he doing a blood eagle?” “Yeah,” I said. “Looks that way.”” Then Djarf proceeds to cut open his back and rip out his lungs, all while he’s still alive. You can tell that this is normal for them and nobody bats an eye, Djarf even tells the children to listen up and learn, teaching them how to do the “blood eagle” and they all seem fascinated by it instead of disgusted.
Wells Tower is an award winning author who debuted his career in 2009 with the release of his collection of short stories called “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”. Tower’s interest in sociology and anthropology, both of which he received degrees from Wesleyan University in, mixed with his M.F.A. in fiction writing from Colombia University “Make his stories seem as though they were case studies taken from an ongoing study of relationships” (Schiffman). His typical style of writing deals with aspects such as hard drinking, cheating, fights etc. and in the words of Sam Anderson on Tower, “He is, like his great forebears, a connoisseur of violence.” His stories in “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” depict the sometimes grim but always shocking reality of life. From Viking warriors to envious teenage girls, this book has it all. Schiffman proposes that “A strong sense of yearning permeates all of these stories — yearning for something more, something lost, or something unlikely ever to be found.” Which is a sort of dark interpretation itself and seems to present that there is hope for something but nothing will ever actually happen.
The title story in his collection takes a different approach than the other stories which loosely portray contemporary Americans. This story is very unusual and its weird that it takes a completely different approach than the other stories, instead of a moody teenager or a middle aged man whose life is falling apart, the characters in this story are a boatload of Vikings set out to plunder a defenseless island. After reading the title story and realizing that it is no where near the plots of the other stories in his book, it begs the question: Why did he put that story in there? Or why does that story alone deal with Vikings and not a contemporary America? When asked about this in an interview with Michael Carroll, Tower says “The Viking story, there’s a lot of violence in that, but it’s sort of a burlesque. All I was really trying to do with that totally over-the-top, grotesque, gory stuff was to show it as a counterpoint to this workaday alienation of these rank-and-file Vikings’ lives.” (Carroll 4) This means that it was just an absurd exaggeration of Vikings and all he was doing was countering the present-day view of Vikings. Also he may have put the Viking story in the collection to make the book more interesting, contemporary America can get boring after awhile so it would help the reader stay interested if they were reading a story about Vikings pillaging an island and killing everyone on it. Its also worth noting that in todays time people are inherently interested in Viking-type stories and modern-day stories that depict old times and violence. There are so many shows and movies today that deal with renaissance era stories, one of the most popular of these is Game of Thrones, which is a fantasy/sci-fi television show that portrays a fictional world full of Viking-esque people and barbarians. What’s even stranger is the fact that these barbaric, Viking-age people speak in the same middle-class American dialect that all the other stories use and that is not much more different from how we talk today. Tower’s syntax and use of colloquialism make the story very easy to follow while still giving great detail. He also has a wide range when it comes to the voices he can write in, “Tower can write with equal power about young women and boys; about hell-¬raising, skull-bashing ancient Vikings and an observant housebound old man of the 21st century, even about a cheerful, insouciant pedophile.” (White) this shows his versatility as a writer, and he does a good job at them all.
In Tower’s book all of the stories, except for one, render a contemporary America with, somewhat, normal problems. A man gets caught cheating, a boy has a horrible stepfather that he hates, a kid hiding from a bully are all problems that people can relate to, but Tower uses these problems and then presents a bigger, usually darker too, problem. In one of the short stories in his book “On the show” a kid is hiding from a bully and while he is in hiding, is “Found by a monster worse than anything in the Haunted House.” (Barr) and his father doesn’t believe him. This theme takes a reversal in the Viking story, where their problems are much different, bad crop yields/weather, pillaging gone wrong, a friend getting stabbed by a kid and then killing the kid etc. but while they are Vikings and deal with much different circumstances than the protagonists in the other stories, they still have some of the same type of problems such as trouble with wives or women in general. The central theme to all the stories is the representation of contemporary America, and it would be strange if only one story did not meet this theme. Maybe the Viking story is actually a looser, more exaggerated rendering of America. Benjamin Alsup has a unique view on this, he says “The America depicted here is jittery and exhausted. Nobody solves the crime. And nobody gets away with anything. The characters muddle on through. They get drunk and they get sad and they go broke and they perform weird acts of kindness, and sometimes they invade smaller countries for no good reason. I mean they live the way we Americans do.” This quote suggests that the Viking clan is not all that different from our America and in some ways they are actually quite similar
The title story in “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” is widely debated in that it doesn’t fit the central theme that all the other stories cohere to. The other eight stories in Tower’s collection are set in contemporary America and the characters are faced with somewhat normal everyday problems and many have a dark undertone. The Viking story seems sort of ‘out of left field’ and random, which makes the reader wonder why it was put in that collection, and also why Tower would choose that to be the title story. One way to look at it is that the Viking story is actually still a loose rendering of America itself. The Viking clan still faces problems that contemporary America can relate to, most of which being familial troubles. Almost every male in the story has problems with their wife or women of some sort, which is present in many of the other stories in the collection. Also, as Benjamin Alsup stated, “They get drunk and they get sad and they go broke and they perform weird acts of kindness, and sometimes they invade smaller countries for no good reason. I mean they live the way we Americans do.” While America today is not seen as barbaric, it still is in some ways such as war and the invasion of other countries, and even though America doesn’t pillage or blunder other countries like in the story, it is a little barbaric in some ways.