Hollmeyer’s prose shines when illuminating these difficult lives of wives and mothers, caught mid-frame in a reality they’ve been unwittingly cemented to. A young mother in “An Hour You Don’t Expect” turns to religion for the attention she craves, resulting in the inevitable end of her marriage. When her beloved pastor falls ill, she struggles with how to recover that acceptance, ultimately using her children as a tool. Another mother in “The Family Room” has fallen fast into domesticity with a man she doesn’t love, trading the ready-made family she and her son give him for the security he provides. An unstable handyman who reminds her of the father of her son is the distraction she needs to get through a house remodel and a life she isn’t sure she’s ready to commit to.
These intersections of motherhood, guilt, and economic insecurity are recurring backdrops in Orders of Protection. In the memorable “A Thousand Needle Stings,” a struggling family adopts pet chickens—named with German adjectives for words such as “industrious” and “bossy”—in the hopes of saving money and giving the father, who has recently lost an arm, a manageable project. But as money becomes scarcer and the family’s stability becomes more tenuous, it falls upon the mother of four to provide for her family in the only way she can manage: “I’d killed Fleißig first, out of spite. It had taken me all of Christmas break to work up the nerve, but it wasn’t so bad once I caught her. She made a stringy divan and a gamey soup.”
With her youngest daughter mourning the death of her classmate through some confusing behavior, and with her oldest son and his quiet girlfriend developing a questionably close relationship, cooking her pet chickens becomes the mother’s least emotionally taxing responsibility. Her job at the chemical company tapers off and then is abruptly ended, and her desperation brims over:
Midnight. I sit in the corner of the kitchen with a bottle of cheap wine, a stack of bills, and the checkbook, balancing. Teetering. The stove light my only hint that I’m awake, and not sure I believe it. I pinch my arm and my arm pinches back. Even this has become a fight.
In the same scene, when she secretly observes an argument between her son and his girlfriend that turns physical, she realizes that he is continuing a repressed cycle of abuse that her own husband started long ago:
He grabs her arm above the elbow. He twists the skin. He shakes his wrist and she gasps and I am her and he is Berndt with two arms and we are standing in the back of Jimmy’s Tavern and I’m already thinking of ways to cover up the bruise so my mother won’t see.
She knows there is nothing she can do to fix her son, and ultimately has to trust that her husband will speak to him. We can see that it is a small relief to her that her husband will finally be able to help with something, but there’s a futility in the act—she seems to have already given up on her son. Giving up control of the situation is just another way for the mother to wound herself with guilt, a familiar pain to the characters of these stories.