Bobbie Ann Mason’s first collection of short stories, Shiloh and Other Stories (1982), made critically famous what has been called Kmart realism and received good reviews, and her novella In Country (1985), about the personal aftermath of the Vietnam War, was made into a topically interesting film. Short fiction has always seemed ideal for Mason, given her perceptive eye for the symbolically telling detail and her carefully controlled language. What she has done with her first long work, Feather Crowns, is to write what might be called a textbook example of the novel form, with all the conventional characteristics of that genre explored and fore-grounded.
Instead of focusing, as she has in the past, on the late twentieth century cultural milieu of lower-middle-class Kentucky characters, Mason has chosen the traditional historical novel as her format, creating a period piece evoking the authentic look and feel of Kentucky farm life in the symbolically significant year of 1900. What ties all this local color together is the character Christianna Wheeler, a farm wife who gives birth to the first recorded set of quintuplets in North America. In an interview after the book was published, Mason, who is herself from a small town in western Kentucky, said that she set the novel in 1900 instead of the present because she was trying to imagine what life was like for her grandparents; it helped her understand who she was and where she came from.
In the cultural world that Mason tries to capture in this novel, every natural event means something, whether a change in the weather, the way the crops grow, or the way the body reacts. Thus, the momentous event of the birth of five children to one woman at one time is not merely an accident of nature; it has some secret significance. Similarly, something so pivotal as the turning of the century must be meaningful and marked by some grand event, and indeed a great earthquake is predicted for New Year’s of the beginning of the new century. This focus on the symbolic significance of events is a central thematic strand of Feather Crowns, for Christianna undergoes considerable anguished soul-searching trying to understand why she, of all women, has been so chosen and what it all means. Although Christianna is named for Mason’s own mother, the word “Christ” in her name takes on symbolic significance in the story, for the birth of her children is compared to the “borning” of Jesus, and all the people who come to see them are compared to the Wise Men bearing gifts.
The transforming power of fame is the most emphatic theme in Mason’s novel. Once word gets out about the miraculous birth, people begin to come from all over the South to see the children and to take away a memento of the event, as if they were paying homage to a religious manifestation of great magnitude. Although Mason tells her story in the third person, she stays very close to the perspective of Christie. There are no discursive discussions of the thematic implications of the focus on the spiritual meaning of physical events; rather, the events are presented from the point of view of a believer in their significance.
Mason describes in some detail the hordes of people that descend on the Wheeler home after the press hears of the birth of the children. They range from the merely curious to those who lament their own childlessness in the face of such fecundity and come as if visiting Lourdes to gain some magical spiritual influence. The women look longingly and the men look admiringly at Christie’s husband James as a symbol of masculine power for his ability to father such a miraculous brood. Gradually, the onlookers begin to consider it their right to invade the private life of Christie and her babies, for by their birth both she and they have been transformed into public property, elevated above the ordinary into the realm of transcendent significance. The fact that Christie’s in-laws begin charging admission and selling souvenirs does not seem so much ignorant greed as the inevitable result of such a momentous occasion—just as Christmas has become the center of the commercial year even though its origin lies in a sacred event.
The death of the five infants within a few months of their birth is the occasion of more soul-searching by the young mother, as she wonders whether she is being punished for enjoying too much the sex act that brought them into being. As is often the case with such seeming manifestations of the spiritual at work in the physical world, the infants become even more mysteriously meaningful after their death. Preserved in airtight containers by the local...
(The entire section is 1911 words.)