Bobbie Ann Mason Mason, Bobbie Ann (Vol. 28)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bobbie Ann Mason 1940–

American short story writer and critic.

Shiloh and Other Stories (1982), Mason's first fictional collection, is set in rural Paducah, Kentucky, where she grew up. The sixteen stories in Shiloh depict a changing South, a world in which characters must reconcile elements of the past, represented by the older generation, with the present. Mason's characters are introduced to the modern world primarily through television. She uses such concrete details as brand names to illustrate the effects of mass culture on the society she portrays, and many of her working-class characters are employed in chain stores rather than on farms or in family businesses. The intrusion of the present into the lives of Mason's people creates not only commercial and material changes, but also more threatening changes in societal mores. Several of the stories concern married couples who are divorced or separated; progress places the same strain on family relationships in Paducah as it does elsewhere.

Critical reaction to Shiloh has been overwhelmingly positive. Mason has been applauded especially for her skillful rendering of a language rich in Southern regionalisms and her often humorous dialogue, both of which help to bring her characters to life. Some critics have commented, however, that Mason's stories are weakened by the same lack of aim or resolution which characterizes much of modern fiction.

Mason has also published two works of literary criticism: Nabokov's Garden: A Guide to Ada (1974) and The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide (1975), which explores and evaluates series fiction written for girls.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 11.)

Anne Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[To say that Mason] is a "new" writer is to give entirely the wrong impression, for there is nothing unformed or merely promising about her. She is a full-fledged master of the short story, and Shiloh and Other Stories, her first collection, is a treasure.

Her characters are backwoods Kentuckians, for the most part, and they're so vividly and lovingly portrayed that we feel we know everything about them. We know their food: the potato and mushroom-soup casseroles, uncooked fruitcake made with graham cracker crumbs and marshmallows, and marshmallow-centered sweet-potato balls rolled in crushed cornflakes. We know their clothing: the women's pantsuits and the men's Worm-and-Germ caps from the feed mill. We know they earn their living selling Tupperware or clerking in Kroger's, the K-Mart, or J. C. Penney, and they pass their free time making latch hook wall hangings of an Arizona sunset. (pp. 36, 38)

What they say comes through so clearly and directly that their voices ring through our living rooms…. Their English is often ungrammatical and filled with gangling, country-style similes, but not a one of these people is described with anything less than complete respect.

Characters alone, of course, don't make a story, no matter how quirky or colorful; nor does an eagle eye or a perfect-pitch ear. What matters finally is that the story enlarge our view of human beings, and these do. They are extraordinarily touching, in the most delicate and apparently effortless way. They explore, usually, the sense of bewilderment and anxious hopefulness that people feel when suddenly confronted with change. It is especially poignant that the characters in these stories, having led more sheltered lives than the average reader, are trying to deal with changes most of us already take for granted.

"One day I was listening to Hank Williams and shelling corn for the chickens and the next day I was expected to know what wines went with what," Nancy Culpepper says. The women in "Third Monday" are throwing a traditional baby shower, but the mother-to-be is a proudly unwed thirty-seven-year-old, and since amniocentesis has divined the baby's sex the cake reads WELCOME HOLLY. In "Graveyard Day ," a divorcee who's considering remarriage finds herself unable to accept the idea that...

(The entire section is 3,547 words.)