Review of Get ‘Em Young, Treat ‘Em Tough, Tell ‘Em Nothing by Robin McLean

Review by Amy Stewart 

Robin McLean, Get ‘Em Young, Treat ‘Em Tough, Tell ‘Em Nothing, And Other Stories

Get ‘Em Young, Treat ‘Em Tough, Tell ‘Em Nothing – Robin McLean review 

The acknowledgements may seem an odd place to start a book review, but McLean discussing the genesis of these stories seems to speak to something fundamental in the collection’s spirit: “There’s the popular view of the solitary writer, writing her stories in a bunker in the desert, in a cabin by a frozen lake, at a picnic table in the wilds of Alaska or Canada, geese flying over. Those images were actually kind of true for the making of these stories”. This may be the reason why a sense of American ‘epicness’, whether it be wild or urban, seems to permeate every story in this collection, which in places rattles with rage, and in others seethes quietly, strangely. 

Get ‘Em Young, Treat ‘Em Tough, Tell ‘Em Nothing is Robin McLean’s third book and second collection of short stories. Poised as “reports from the eternal battlefront that is the United States”, these stories use the culture and landscape of America as backdrop, as character, as aggressor. There is a restlessness between these covers, a wild creativity which sparks off in unexpected directions as characters hurt each other, miscommunicate, and take of f on quests across landscapes unmistakeably American in their detail. Protagonists find themselves trying to ‘make it’ in an array of unforgiving environments: in ‘But for Herr Hitler’, a couple moves to the wilds of Alaska for a fresh start. In ‘Cliff Ordeal’, a man finds himself stranded on the side of a cliff, trying to attract attention. 

In the titular story, we follow Private Martin, a day guard at a lonely outpost. Martin learns about the mysterious night guard whose life connects so tangibly with his through scrawled messages on the walls, eerie in their voicelessness and opaquely violent in their content: “RUN FOR YouR LIFE YOU SHITheAD”, “STICkS & STONE HURT MOrE IF YOU DO IT RIGHT”. When Martin is wrongly blamed for an infraction committed by the night guard, he’s left feeling betrayed. The base is evacuated, but Martin is held behind. The sense of chaos and unease builds as the base slowly empties, compounded by the unforgiving nature of the barren landscape around the base, towards which Martin eventually directs his anger:

“The tundra was not one dumb thing, but billions! The tiniest stupidities knitted together. Doltish leaves, small like mouse ears, forking foolishly from dimwit twigs overlapping endlessly with same, blending together only in the eyes of thickskulled watchmen and other hoofed mammals. A moronic collage.” 

Later, the recognisable hallmarks of a military base melt into the natural world, creating an uneasy, anxious amalgamation of the two: 

“The sun dropped. It flashed on the eyelets of boots and badges or silver rope and bayonets or sweat on lips, mica pulverized or nameless crystals, all pomp and pretty, the compound changing hands, with some justice, ‘Let’s hope’ thorns and buttercups.” 

In a way that’s both acerbic and eloquent, McLean seems to infer that violence is landscape – in places of war, what is the difference?

For me, the true standout from the collection is “True Carnivores”, in which a woman robs her sister and kidnaps her nephew, taking him on a journey across the states that spans several years. The longer time goes on, the more obvious it becomes that the woman has no intention of returning the boy to his mother, and that the abduction has arisen out of some historic sense of competition between the two sisters. There is a potent sense of lawlessness, of unravelling, almost of banditry: “’Where are we going?’ Theo said, leaning out the window. ‘Everywhere,’ she said. ‘There are no rules for us.’” But as Theo grows older, there is a growing conflict between the two characters, a friction, and we wonder how long it’ll be before he finds her out. This story offers a sense of resolution that a lot of the others do not, but still, an air of unspoken violence hangs in the air at the denouement. 

Get ‘Em Young, Treat ‘Em Tough, Tell ‘Em Nothing is not a collection that explains, or comforts. Rather, it uses fierce language and surrealism to unsettle and create dark near-dystopias, unique in the clarity of their vision and the finely wrought nature of their characters. It’s as unpredictable as the American landscape itself, lonely as a desert and confident as a city at night. This is a collection to read and re-read, to sit with, and ultimately, to treasure. 

Amy Stewart is a writer living in the Scottish Borders. She has an MA in Creative Writing from York St John University and is currently studying for a Creative Writing PhD at the University of Sheffield.

Her work appears in Test Signal (Dead Ink Books/Bloomsbury, 2021) and a number of journals including Ellipsis Zine and Visual Verse. She has been highly commended and shortlisted in the Bridport and Mairtín Crawford Prizes. In 2021, she won the New Writing North & Word Factory Northern Apprentice Award and in 2022, won the Mairtín Crawford Prize for Short Story. She is represented by Marilia Savvides at 42.