Bobbie Ann Mason Essay - Critical Essays

Bobbie Ann Mason American Literature Analysis

An early reviewer of Shiloh, and Other Stories described Mason’s typical setting as a “ruburb.” This coined word—a fusion of “rural” and “urban”—identifies not only a place but also a significant conflict in Mason’s fiction. Most of her characters reside on the boundary between old ways—the presumed safety and simplicity of the country—and new modes of behavior that frequently bring confusion and isolation. When Mason herself left Kentucky to take her first full-time job in New York City, she described herself as a victim of culture shock. She was the country girl forced to adjust to the radically different big city. Mason’s characters may not travel far from their small-town Kentucky homes, but radical changes do invade their pastoral world. In the story “Lying Doggo,” for example, a young woman exclaims that she once shelled corn for the chickens and listened to the songs of Hank Williams but now she is expected to know the appropriate wine for every meal.

With the introduction of Wal-Marts and countless tract houses, the appearance of small towns and farms is indeed dramatically altered. In fact, Leroy Moffitt in “Shiloh” compares the new subdivisions that spread across the landscape to oil slicks. Along with these physical alterations come even more disturbing personal and social changes—such as recreational drug use, divorce, and trauma after combat in Vietnam.

One of Mason’s primary strategies for documenting such change is her frequent allusion to popular culture, especially songs, television shows, and films. For example, In Country begins with a quotation from Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” that aptly describes the fire still burning within many war veterans. “Graveyard Day” refers to two sharply contrasting television shows—The Waltons, a nostalgic tribute to an ideal American family, and All in the Family, a more realistic series that refuses to gloss over family problems. In the story, the unconventional family that is watching The Waltons turns their television off in the middle of the program, as if to suggest that such storybook families have also suffered a premature ending. In “Shiloh,” the Moffitts’ infant son dies while they are at the local drive-in watching a double feature of Dr. Strangelove and Lover Come Back. The first film provides a commentary on the surreal nature of their relationship after the baby’s death, and the second emphasizes their need for reconciliation and mutual support.

Mason describes various passages through life to show how characters of different generations deal with significant changes. Her most characteristic stories show young adults confronting divorce and related family problems. In “Residents and Transients,” for example, Mary is separated from her husband and sees herself as much like a rabbit smashed on the highway but still attempting to hop. Both Mary and the rabbit keep trying to move forward but are powerless to do so. Elderly protagonists are also confused and thwarted. The retired couple in “The Ocean” have sold the family farm and set out in a new camper for Florida, but they become lost both literally and metaphorically. In asking the way to 65, they are requesting both directions to the proper interstate highway and guidance toward meaningful old age. Mason’s fiction also includes adolescent rites of passage. For example, “Detroit Skyline, 1949” describes the pain of initiation into a puzzling adult world. Here a young girl must confront, in her mother’s sudden miscarriage, the combined mysteries of sexuality and mortality.

The novel Feather Crowns (1993) is a departure from Mason’s usual focus on contemporary society. Set in 1900 in western Kentucky, this book describes the births, and deaths shortly afterward, of quintuplets. The title refers to a nest of feathers formed in a pillow by the impression of a baby’s head—interpreted as a sign that the baby is blessed. Although such settings and events are atypical for Mason, the novel displays a familiar Mason theme—the shock of radical change. The parents of the quintuplets must adjust not only to the remarkable births but also to the throngs of reporters and curious spectators who invade their home seeking glimpses and souvenirs of the babies.


First published: 1980 (collected in Shiloh, and Other Stories, 1982)

Type of work: Short story

After Leroy Moffitt wrecks his tractor-trailer rig, he and his wife Norma Jean attempt to solve problems in their marriage that they have ignored for years.

Although “Shiloh” was the second story that Mason published, it remains one of her most popular and is a good example of her typical characters and themes. The story focuses on a troubled marriage—on wreckage and attempts to rebuild. For most of his marriage Leroy was on the road as a truck driver. Now, after a serious accident, his wrecked truck sits idle...

(The entire section is 2067 words.)