Bobbie Ann Mason Short Fiction Analysis
Often compared with Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, and Frederick Barthelme, Bobbie Ann Mason writes fiction that reads like life. Her characters struggle with jobs, family, and self-awareness, continually exuding a lively sense of being. Those who people her stories often transcend circumstance without losing their rootedness in place. Most often her characters struggle to live within a relationship, but are frequently alone. In fiction that resonates with rock-and-roll music and family conflicts, her descriptions leave a reader sometimes feeling uncomfortably aware of a truth about families: Caring does not guarantee understanding or communication.
The short stories are for the most part set in small towns in Kentucky and explore the lives of lower-middle-class people from small towns or farms. Kentucky, a North/South border state, is emblematic of Mason’s concerns with borders, separations, and irrevocable decisions. Mason’s stories typically explore a conflict between the character’s past and future, a conflict that is often exemplified in a split between rural and urban leanings and a modern as opposed to a traditional life. Most often, the point of view in Mason’s short fiction is limited omniscient. She is, however, adept with first-person narration as well. Readers are most often left with a sense of her characters’ need to transcend their life scripts through action, frequently a quest. Her stories typically lack resolution, making them uncomfortably true to life.
Shiloh, and Other Stories
“Shiloh,” the title story in Mason’s first collection, is a story about love, loss, and history. A couple, Leroy and Norma Jean, have been married for sixteen years. They married when Norma Jean was pregnant with their son Randy, a child who died as an infant. Leroy is home recuperating from an accident he had in his truck. His leg is healing, but he is afraid to go back to driving a truck long distances. He takes on traditionally feminine activities in the story: He starts doing crafts, watches birds at the feeder, and remains the passenger in the car even after his leg has healed enough for him to drive.
The accident that forced Leroy to remain at home for months recuperating is the second crisis in the couple’s marriage. The earlier crisis had been their baby’s death. After the baby died, Leroy and Norma Jean remained married but emotionally isolated from each other:They never speak about their memories of Randy, which have almost faded, but now that Leroy is home all the time, they sometimes feel awkward around each other, and Leroy wonders if one of them should mention the child. He has the feeling that they are waking up out of a dream together.
Now that Leroy is at home, he “sees things about Norma Jean that he never realized before.” Leroy’s staying at home so much leads to several important changes for Norma Jean: She begins to lift weights, takes a writing course, and curses in front of her mother. In response to the repeated suggestion of Norma Jean’s mother, the couple drives to the Shiloh battleground for a second honeymoon trip. At Shiloh, Norma Jean tells Leroy that she wants to leave him. The history of Shiloh is significant to the story of this marriage. Shiloh, an early battle in the Civil War, proved that the Civil War would be a long and bloody one. The story concludes with Leroy merging family history with battleground history and Norma Jean literally flexing her muscles. Their civil war will be Leroy fighting for union and Norma Jean seeking her independent self.
A contemporary history lesson on the fear of polio and communists, “Detroit Skyline, 1949” narrates in first person the summer spent by a nine-year-old girl, Peggy Jo, and her mother as they visit the mother’s sister and her family in Detroit. The story reveals the conflict between rural and city life through the perceptions and desires of Peggy Jo. Seeing her aunt’s neighborhood for the first time, Peggy Jo immediately knows that she wants to live “in a place like this, with neighbors.” When she plays with the neighbor child, however, Peggy Jo is made to feel incompetent because she does not know how to roller-skate, so she instead spends her time watching television and examining newspaper articles and pictures in her aunt’s scrapbook.
Peggy Jo feels isolated that summer. She observes the smoothness with which her mother and aunt converse, how natural their communication is. When she attends a birthday party for the neighbor child, Peggy Jo notes:I did not know what to say to the children. They all knew each other, and their screams and giggles had a natural continuity, something like the way my mother talked with her sister, and like the splendid houses of the neighborhood, all set so close together.
For Peggy Jo there is little “natural continuity” of speech or gesture within her aunt’s household that summer. Her own comments are most often cut short, silenced, or discredited by the others. By the end of the summer, Peggy Jo realizes that her “own life [is] a curiosity, an item for a scrapbook.”
Another of Mason’s stories concerning rural isolation is “Offerings,” in which the isolation is redemptive for Sandra, who stays in the couple’s country home instead of traveling with her husband, Jerry, to Louisville, “reluctant to spend her weekends with him watching go-go dancers in smoky bars.” She instead spends her time growing vegetables and tending her cats, ducks, and dogs. Her cobweb-strewn house is not her focus; the outdoors is. The offerings that Sandra makes are many: to her mother, tacit agreement to avoid discussing the separation from Jerry; to her grandmother, the fiction of Jerry’s presence; and to the forces of nature around her, her tamed and dependent ducks. Sandra finds grace through the natural world, exemplified within the final image of the story: dewy spiderwebs that, in the morning, are trampolines enabling her to “spring from web to web, all the way up the hill to the woods.” She cannot be honest with her grandmother and avoids truth in conversation with her mother, but she feels at peace and at home with her yard, the woods, and the wildlife there.
In “Residents and Transients,” Mason’s narrator is also married to a man who has gone away to work in Louisville. Mary, the narrator, is finding her place within a relationship as well as a location. Several images in this story reinforce the theme of stability as opposed to movement. The cats...
(The entire section is 2667 words.)