Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519
Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories moved a scholar with a dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov and a study on women sleuths in literature into the forefront of American short-story writers. Shortly after its appearance in 1982, Shiloh and Other Stories won for Mason the PEN Hemingway Award for First Fiction and became a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Book Award, and the PEN Faulkner Award. In addition to receiving critical acclaim, the collection enjoyed popular success, and various works from it have appeared in anthologies as examples of well-crafted short stories.
The strength of this thematically interlaced collection stems from the stories’ universality and Mason’s ability to create characters who easily could live next door. Mason’s fictional Hopewell is the quintessential rural American community. Its people and its problems are those experienced daily by thousands of real small-town citizens. The characters who populate this little corner of the world are nothing more than common folk, but their lives reflect the pathos found in traditional literary tragedies.
The stories’ brevity and self-containment demonstrate Edgar Allan Poe’s pronouncement on the characteristics of a good short story. Although thematically intertwined, these stories operate as individual vignettes or slices of life, demonstrating Mason’s ability to make form fit function. The Shiloh stories do not rely upon a collective dynamic for their strength. Each story tells of specific people at specific moments in time.
Mason’s Hopewell, Kentucky, is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi; Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio; Ernest Hemingway’s Michigan; Eudora Welty’s Mississippi; and Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia and Tennessee. Like these earlier writers, Mason has created an identifiable place into which she thrusts her characters, therefore making them more plausible than characters who come from nowhere specific.
Mason’s choice of the short story as the vehicle for telling the history of Hopewell and its inhabitants is an applicable one. She is not attempting to tell the history of the town in an extended narrative. Instead, she relates numerous individual moments that make up the greater chronology of Hopewell and the individuals about whom she writes. The impact of the Shiloh stories would have been negated if they had gone beyond their moments in time.
The tension needed for a literary work to succeed is not lost in these brief stories. Mason is able to expand this tension by showing that it is not limited to the life of a single individual. Like Sherwood Anderson’s stories about Winesburg, Ohio, Mason’s Shiloh stories examine moments in the lives of various individuals. As do Anderson’s stories, Mason’s short pieces create a collective history of a small community that is suffering from a social virus; in this case, the fact that women have no real identities of their own.
The finely wrought short stories in Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories are psychological case studies of women who are searching for themselves. These works place Bobbie Ann Mason safely in the company of writers who have become masters of both psychology and literary style.