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Shiloh Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Leroy Moffitt watches his wife, Norma Jean, building up her pectorals by lifting dumbbells. After injuring his leg in a tractor-trailer accident, he does not want to make any more long hauls. Considering what to do next, he builds things from craft kits, including a miniature log cabin. Leroy notices that Norma Jean often seems disappointed to find him at home when she returns from work. He wonders if it reminds her of their marriage before he went on the road and of their son, Randy, who died of sudden infant death syndrome. They have never talked about Randy’s death, but Leroy now thinks that one of them should mention it. Realizing that he and Norma Jean barely know each other, he wants to start fresh and create a new marriage. The cabin he constructed with ice cream sticks gives him an idea—to build Norma Jean a full-scale log house from a kit.

When Leroy goes to buy marijuana from Stevie Hamilton, a doctor’s son, he notices that subdivisions are “spreading across Kentucky like an oil slick.” He wonders where all the farmers have gone, and he thinks about Randy. If he had lived, he would be about Stevie’s age. When Leroy gets home, Norma Jean’s mother, Mabel Beasley, is there. She visits frequently, making sure that Norma Jean is keeping up with her housework. Mabel urges them to visit the Civil War battleground at Shiloh, Tennessee. After Mabel leaves, Norma Jean rereads Leroy a list of jobs he can do, while she goose-steps through the kitchen, wearing ankle weights.

One day Leroy comes home to find Norma Jean crying because her mother has caught her smoking. When Mabel arrives the next day, she tells them about a baby killed by a dog while its mother was in the next room. Reminded of Randy, Norma Jean thinks Mabel is getting revenge on her for smoking. Leroy realizes something is happening. Norma Jean has been going to night school. After completing her bodybuilding course, she has enrolled in an adult-education course in composition. When Leroy confides in Mabel about his marriage, she advises him to take Norma Jean on a second honeymoon to Shiloh. When Norma Jean comes home, she responds to the idea rudely. Mabel chides her for using bad language.

Norma Jean eventually agrees to go to Shiloh with Leroy. While they are having a picnic near the cemetery for the Union dead, she tells Leroy that she wants to leave him. Realizing that his plan to build her a log cabin is foolish, Leroy knows that he must think of something else, quickly. Norma Jean walks to the edge of a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River, then turns and waves her arms. Leroy does not know whether she is beckoning to him or doing chest exercises.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 in his backyard while he recovers from a leg injury. For the first time he and his wife Norma Jean must deal with another terrible accident that occurred sixteen years earlier—the death of their infant son Randy. As Norma Jean lifts weights and Leroy does needlepoint, they must also deal with reversed gender roles and other sweeping social changes that have affected their small town.

Leroy tries to cope by assembling craft kits—a B-17 Flying Fortress, a model-truck lamp, a log cabin made from Popsicle sticks. After constructing the miniature cabin, Leroy hopes to construct a real cabin as a home for himself and Norma Jean. In all these actions, Leroy attempts to make many small parts fit together—to create an orderly whole that is lacking in his own life. In aspiring to raise a cabin, Leroy also reverts to a presumably less turbulent time in the past.

When Leroy and Norma Jean cannot reconstruct their lives at home, they head for Shiloh on...

(The entire section is 1,325 words.)