Shiloh, and Other Stories

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Short stories by Bobbie Ann Mason have been appearing in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Redbook, North American Review, and elsewhere during the early 1980’s. The sixteen pieces assembled in her first collection of short fiction are even more impressive when read as a group. They are unified by a strong sense of place, by a particular kind of character, by a firmly individual voice, and by themes and feelings that are universal.

The place is western Kentucky, sharply realized through concrete particulars of food, social custom, and speech. Paradoxically, the specific details also make the setting familiar to many readers, because Mason uses them to supply context rather than local color. Her western Kentucky is not a museum of hillbilly life and quaint tradition, but a locale that might be found almost anywhere beyond the urban centers of America. It has Kmarts and bowling leagues, Tupperware and matched sets of furniture, and flea markets on third Mondays. People rent their houses; they think about going to Florida or Arizona. The primary timepiece is not the sun or the clock but the television set: visitors drop by in the middle of “The Waltons,” and Christmas dinner is cooked during “Days of Our Lives.”

The people are working men and women: truck drivers, bus drivers, carpenters, clerks at Rexall or Kmart or Krogers. Women without regular jobs sew sets of cheerleader uniforms or look after gardens and hens; one “non-working” wife, in “The Rookers,” hauls lumber for her husband, delivers bookshelves, makes trips to exchange screws, keeps the books, cans, sews, and sometimes puts in a few weeks at H & R Block. The minister in “The Retreat” does electrical work for money because the church does not pay enough. When children go to college, it is usually to a local junior college; one exception, Nancy Culpepper (who appears in two stories), is, like author Bobbie Ann Mason, a college graduate living in Pennsylvania, but she is first seen on a trip to Kentucky to help her parents move Granny into the nursing home (and, not incidentally, to try to rescue Granny’s photographs lest they be thrown away).

Mason’s most striking achievement is her ability to present these people vividly, on their own terms, with absolute respect and dignity. One never hears the voice of an educated author condescending, or exaggerating for the sake of humor, or giving explanations that the characters are too simpleminded to understand, or sentimentalizing the “naturalness” of their lives. Part of the effect grows from the accumulation of material detail: coconut cakes with seven-minute icing, chicken mites that the doctor thinks are body lice, soup-based casseroles, Cokes and Corningware, photo albums with plastic pockets, blackberry cobblers, a weskit pattern with the facing missing, Hollie Hobbie cards, bonded knit shirts, bourbon and boiled custard, fudge-ripple ice cream, the details of daily living such as chopping onions or running out to the Kwik-Pik at the last minute to get grape juice for Communion. Because the details are so specific,...

(The entire section is 1265 words.)