Six Old Women and Other Stories by Sharon L. Dean

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter

Cover image of Sharon L. Dean's Six Old Women and Other Stories. The author's name appears at the top in yellow all-caps with "Author of the Deborah Strong Mysteries" in smaller black text underneath over a background of a faded red wallpaper with a botanical print. In the foreground is an illustration of a teacup and saucer on a table. The cup has an image of a skull and crossbones on it. Steam rising from the cup encircles the title written in script. To the right of the teacup is a spoon, a tea stain on the off-white tablecloth, and the handle side of a teapot. The cup, saucer, and teapot are white with gold trim.

Six Old Women and Other Stories by Sharon L. Dean

Sharon Dean’s short story collection Six Old Women and Other Stories (Encircle Publications, 2022) is filled with gorgeous prose and dynamic characters who are full of surprises. Set against the gorgeous backdrop of a New Hampshire setting that Dean knows well, the stories are filled with a variety of characters, young and old, with variable circumstances: six old women living a reclusive life in a lake house, two cousins who share a childhood mystery relating to a long ago summer camp game, a woman down on her luck, another woman about to be, and a man living off his own steam. Dean dives deep into the human experience as she creates characters with depth, breadth, and soul. The stories are realistically contemporary and historical, too, as the characters move seamlessly from present to past and back again.

Six Old Women, the first story, is the flagship of the collection, a novella. This story intrigued me, drawing me in from the first few lines. Dean imagines six women, unique and distinct. They are clearly identifiable with their words and actions and beautiful human imperfections and secrets, living out their golden years in an elderly commune of old college friends. Then along comes a young nurse who unknowingly changes everything. Dean slowly builds a cozy mystery with interesting backstory and curious flashback leading the reader in snippets toward a whodunit.

Mystery is as strong as the settings in Dean’s stories. It waits. I didn’t see it at first, so caught up was I in the characters. It is subtle and slowly comes to the surface casually in little remarks and observations poking the reader to pay attention to the details.

Likewise, the other stories also build on strong characters who are more than what they seem. The two young cousins in “Shuffleboard” are innocent, carefree young teens spending a summer at a family-style east coast resort popular in mid-century, upper-middle-class America. As I read, I thought about Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in the Hollywood film, Dirty Dancing. The world away from the real world. Leisure days, summer fun, and fireworks. Dean writes with gorgeous detail intertwining character, setting, and plot and packing them in with curious tension between a triad of characters.

This stopped me.

This is where I started to see another thread forming, connecting the stories. Though each story is totally different, they all seem to pitch the young with the old.  A comparison? Not always favorable. Starting out and ending up? Maybe. There is also an element of decay. Two stories in particular are about people who grow old under the watchful eyes of their community. In “Pavlov’s Puppies,” the main character, Miss Ellen Stockwell, described as “one of our own,” started out brilliant in life, the town expecting greatness from her. But life didn’t work out so well for this character and her house reveals much about her.

…built before 1900, it should have been respectively old. Instead, it stands like a cancer… paint chipping, shudders askew… its half-drawn shades obscuring the darkness within.  Even in January the porch smells of dampness and rot, not the rancid smell of decaying garbage, but the musty smell of wet newspapers and cardboard boxes. (155)

Great writing! There is grotesqueness with a creep factor reminding me of a Shirley Jackson story as Dean builds character with mystery, a very human mystery surrounding Miss Stockwell’s personal circumstance and her self-driven transformation to town pariah.

I had similar thoughts about “The Man Who Loved Scrabble.” The subject of this story is a man who exists on the margins, living camp-style in a shack. Jimmy Hanrahan, according to the main character, Hazel, who has a fascination with him since childhood. Hazel takes a backward glance and spends her time spying and prying:

Why had Jimmy Hanrahan disappeared, and why had he returned to live off the grid, his only company, Moses Flannery ? (167)

Dean takes her time with this story, painting a picture of a strange fellowship of three characters who remain unchangeable, though likable. Stagnant and sadly stuck as life passes them by.

“Hardscrabble” differed from the other stories. Another character comes home. Monica. She’s not elderly, but young enough… returning after many years to the White Mountains. This character was interesting. Whereas Dean’s other characters have varied amounts of good humor, this main character has very little of it. Likeability. Monica is self-centered and self-driven and is about to embark on her first solo paragliding experience. Having parted with her boyfriend, she decides to go on the adventure without him. “Live Free or Die” is her home state’s creed. Beware. New Hampshire is beautiful and beautiful can be deadly.

…With no place to land underneath her and no forward penetration, she had to turn and run with the wind. The lower she got the less she could see anything but the tops of trees… (144)

Hardscrabble refers to a trail section in Cannon Mountain where there is history for Monica. Something festers… perhaps this is where Monica will find her grace. Dean shines with the setting that only a true resident could know. I could see the canopy and smell the pines. The technical language is superb.  Monica goes about her business of preparing for her sail over Franconia Notch while trouble brews. This story is more than it seems.

Sharon L. Dean’s stirring collection is a love story of coming home told in many voices, old and young, that illustrate how much home matters, the place where one’s story begins and where it sometimes comes full circle.


Sharon L. Dean grew up in Massachusetts where she was immersed in the literature of New England. She earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of New Hampshire, a state she lived and taught in before moving to Oregon. Although she has given up writing scholarly books that require footnotes, she incorporates much of her academic research as background in her mysteries. She is the author of three Susan Warner mysteries and three Deborah Strong mysteries. Her latest novel, Leaving Freedom, will be reprinted in 2023 along with a sequel, Finding Freedom. Dean’s short story “Pavlov’s Puppies” appeared in Toasted Cheese. Dean continues to write about New England while she is discovering the beauty of the West.


Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: reviews[at]

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