Mason writes “Shiloh” in a realistic style into which she weaves symbolic images and references. By paralleling Norma Jean and Leroy with the North and South in the Civil War—and, further, by linking this conflict with the mutual annihilation of the West and the East imagined in Doctor Strangelove—Mason approaches allegory. The word “civil” can refer to marriage as well as to the war between the states, which is also ironic. Mason’s references to Monroe and Presley, to songs such as “Sunshine Superman,” and to films such as Doctor Strangelove, provide a commentary on the characters and incidents of the story. All of these references communicate Mason’s view of the direction taken by history since the defeat of agrarianism in the Civil War.
Mason also uses patterns of imagery to communicate her theme. Images of death are dominant. Death from industrial pollution is linked to the subdivisions spreading “like an oil slick.” Leroy relates this to the disappearance of the farmers, another kind of death. He compares the new, white-columned brick house of Stevie Hamilton’s father to a funeral parlor. At Shiloh, he thinks the cemetery of the Union dead, with its white markers, looks like a subdivision site. Norma Jean walks through this cemetery following a brick path. The word “brick” echoes its use in the description of Dr. Hamilton’s house. This suggests to the reader where Norma Jean will end up if she leaves Leroy—in the subdivisions.
With another set of images, Mason offers hope. After flying past scenery for fifteen years on the road, Leroy describes his rig as “a gigantic bird that has come home to roost.” To roost is to sleep. Later, watching birds at the feeder close their wings, then fall, he thinks of Norma Jean, who closes her eyes when they are in bed. However, Leroy also thinks he and Norma Jean are waking from a dream together, and the birds he watches spread their wings to catch themselves after they fall. This foreshadows the ending when Norma Jean stands at the edge of the bluff—about to fall?—and waves her arms at Leroy. Consciousness of their predicament in the twentieth century United States may save them. Still, the sky is “the color of the dust ruffle Mabel made for their bed,” under which Leroy said they could hide things.
Mason also alludes to the Christian myth of the Fall. She describes the path Norma Jean follows at the end of the story as serpentine, suggesting the snake in Eden. Norma Jean will fall if she continues to accept the values of a civilization that seeks absolute power over nature. Another Christian reference provides an answer. The log cabin Leroy made with ice cream sticks reminds him of a rustic Nativity scene. Leroy, Norma Jean, and the world need a rebirth of love.
The sixteen short stories that constitute Bobbie Ann Mason’s first published collection, Shiloh, and Other Stories, recount the lives of women in the fictional small town of Hopewell, Kentucky, who have a common desire for personal understanding. With the exception of “Nancy Culpepper” and “Lying Doggo,” Mason’s stories deal with different female protagonists, but each story addresses the same general theme: Every woman must find comfort in understanding herself as an individual; when she becomes the emotional appendage of a male, all of her individuality is lost.
Nancy Culpepper, the protagonist of the stories “Nancy Culpepper” and “Lying Doggo,” is a typical Mason protagonist. In the first story, much of Nancy’s time is spent trying to save her grandmother’s photographs and...
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trying to identify a woman in an old portrait who she believes is a distant relative also named Nancy Culpepper. She is hoping to find some connection with her familial past. Although Nancy is disappointed when she discovers that the woman in question is not Nancy Culpepper, she realizes that she has been actively searching for her own identity.
In the second story in which she appears, Nancy Culpepper is confronted with standing up against her husband’s decision to put their old dog, Grover, to sleep. This stand is more than a mere attempt to save an old dog’s life; Nancy needs to be and will be heard.
Mason’s other female protagonists all go beyond married lives for their identities. In the collection’s title story, Norma Jean Moffitt finds little emotional satisfaction in being the wife of injured and unemployed trucker Larry Moffitt. While Larry sits home making string art and dreaming of building his wife a log cabin, Norma Jean works at body building and takes continuing education classes, seeking a place of her own.
In “The Retreat” and “The Ocean,” Mason’s protagonists accompany their husbands on excursions in search of something that is missing in their lives. Georgeann Pickett accompanies her husband, the Reverend Shelby Pickett, on a religious retreat where she attends workshops on making a successful Christian marriage, hoping to find meaning in hers. Instead, she finds she must confront the fundamentalist view that there is no reason for unhappiness in marriage or with one’s husband. Similarly, in “The Ocean,” Imogene Crittendon takes a trip in a fancy camper with her husband Bill to see the Atlantic Ocean. The story ends with Bill standing looking out into the ocean and remembering his days in the Navy. Imogene finds no satisfaction in looking at the water and hearing stories about her husband’s past. Instead, she finds symbolic relief from her husband’s ramblings in a shady place of her own.
In “The Rookers,” Mary Lou Skaggs finds a respite from running errands for her husband in her periodic games of Rook with women of similar interests and concerns. In “Still Life with Watermelon,” Louise Milsap, whose husband ran away with his mistress, finds herself by making paintings of watermelons, hoping that an eccentric local bachelor will purchase her works. In a more direct manner, the first person narrator of “Residents and Transients” takes a lover while her husband is in Louisville. Her dissatisfaction goes beyond her husband’s being away. She does not want to leave the rural area where she feels at home.
Other stories demonstrate women’s need to belong. In “Drawing Names” and “Old Things,” mothers argue with daughters about the proper thing to do. “Drawing Names” is about a family Christmas gathering to which Carolyn Sission, the story’s divorced protagonist, invites her lover, Kent Ballard. For numerous reasons Kent is unable to make the trip. Kent’s failure to appear speaks of male/female relationships in general: Women cannot depend upon men and must be able to depend upon themselves.
The remaining stories—“Detroit Skyline,” “Offerings,” “The Climber,” “Graveyard Day,” “The New Wave Format,” and “Third Monday”—continue discussing Mason’s theme of women’s search for ways of finding themselves or at least of finding ways of getting their mates to recognize their special needs.
Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories continues the tradition in which women writers tell the stories of women who are looking for individual identities, a tradition perfected by such earlier writers as Kate Chopin, Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, and Harper Lee. Like her literary precursors, Mason chooses to tell women’s stories through female protagonists and narrators. This technique has proved to be a successful vehicle for telling women’s stories in the works of other disparate contemporary women writers such as Lee Smith, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, and Rita Mae Brown.
Feminist critics have long been concerned with the dearth of women writers who have come to the forefront of American literature and with men writers’ attempts to tell women’s stories. In Shiloh and Other Stories and in her later works, Mason takes important steps toward allaying these concerns. In each story, Mason provides a complete depiction of the momentary fragments that produce the lives that her female protagonists have been forced to live.
In none of her stories does Mason moralize or offer clear-cut answers to complex problems. Her intention is to inform rather than pontificate. Mason is able to draw her reader into her fictional world by creating believable characters who live in believable settings. The reader’s concern turns from the progression of a fictional narrative to commiseration with an individual who is experiencing intense challenges to a once-stable relationship or to her attempts to come to terms with herself.
In the canon of works by women about women, Mason’s short stories stand out in their portrayal of women who decide to make their own decisions about their lives. Often this individualism goes against the social grain, yet Mason’s protagonists are willing to stand up to any stigma that may be cast upon them. They must live their own lives unencumbered by outside interference. Her works join the growing list of high-quality works that speak directly to the need of women to have lives and identities of their own without the fear of being branded as radical. Mason’s works exemplify the new works that are being considered for canonization, works that, in the past, would have been overlooked because they were written by women, not because of any artistic weakness.
Change Comes to Kentucky Virtually every reviewer of "Shiloh" notes that the story is set in rural western Kentucky, a location undergoing rapid cultural change. This is the Kentucky in which Mason herself grew up. As a result, she is able to create believable characters caught m the transition between the old, pastoral, rural world of farms and close-knit communities and the modern, anonymous, suburban world of shopping malls and fast-food restaurants. In "Shiloh," for example, Leroy did not notice the change in his hometown while he was on the road as a trucker. However, now that Leroy has come home to stay, "he notices how much the town has changed. Subdivisions are spreading across western Kentucky like an oil slick.''
Some of these changes are noticeable from demographic information about the area For example, m 1980, 73 percent of western Kentucky's residents had completed grammar school, but by 1990, the figure had jumped to 84 percent. This statistic is reflected in Mason's story: Leroy and Norma Jean had little formal education, but Norma Jean comes to realize the value of school and begins taking adult education classes. Similarly, in 1980 only 11 percent of Kentuckians had completed at least one year of college. By 1990, over 19 percent had. Other statistics point to shifting cultural patterns in formerly rural Kentucky. In 1985, Graves County (where Mason grew up) per capita income was $10,900, but by 1995 this figure had risen to $18,900. Out of 14,500 homes in the county, 42 percent have been built since the 1970s.
Socially, Leroy and Norma Jean are working-class white people caught in a time of diminishing expectations. When Leroy claims that he plans on building a log cabin for them, Norma Jean responds, "Like heck you are.... You'll have to find a job first. Nobody can afford to build now." In the early years of Ronald Reagan's presidency, a severe recession gripped the United States. High interest rates, double-digit inflation, and high unemployment squeezed the working classes, while many wealthy Americans reaped the benefits of Reagan's system of "tackle-down economics." In 1982, unemployment was 10.8 percent—the highest since the Great Depression—and the number of Americans living below the poverty line was the highest in seventeen years. Despite this, the stock market set record highs and traded record numbers of shares.
These economic trends correlate with other social trends, like the rising divorce rate, which peaked in 1981 at 5.3 per 1,000 marriages, as more and more women (like Norma Jean) became financially independent. In 1966, around the time the Moffitts were married, the divorce rate was 2.5 per 1,000 marriages. Additionally, the average length for all first marriages that end in divorce is 11 years, and the average age at divorce for men is 35, for women the average age is 33. These figures closely correspond with the Moffitts' situation. Mason put a human face on statistics in creating the characters of Leroy and Norma Jean.
Mason herself has commented many times on her concern with working-class people. In her interview with Lila Havens, she noted, "I'm constantly preoccupied with the class struggle and I'm exploring various kinds of culture shock—people moving from one class to another, people being threatened by other people's ways and values—and the way those attitudes come into play with each other, especially when people do leave home or when the outside world comes prancing in via the television."
Abundant opportunity for discussion of familial and social relationships exists in the various stories Mason presents in this collection. Readers might want to list the many themes they encounter, such as parenthood, sibling relationships, spousal relationships, forgiveness, the power of memory, etc., then go back and find such themes in individual stories to note how the varied plots can focus upon identical themes. Most readers will see themselves in one or more of Mason's characters, or at least an aspect of themselves. An enjoyable exercise is the discussion of which character individual group members are most strongly attracted to and why.
1. Discuss the effects of depressed economic conditions upon the various characters of Mason's short stories.
2. How does television work as a negative influence in the lives of Mason's short stories.
3. Choose one female character from a Mason story who you think best represents Mason's idea of a "heroine". Explain why.
4. Choose one male character from a Mason story who you think best represents Mason's idea of a "hero". Explain why.
5. In "Drawing Names", why is Carolyn attracted to Jim? How can you defend this aspect of Mason's plot as realistic?
6. Explain which of the stories is your favorite and why.
7. Can any positive message be drawn from the dissolution of the relationship between Leroy and Norma Jean in "Shiloh"?
8. Discuss the theme of communication seen in "Rookers."
9. In "Nancy Culpepper", the theme of personal identity is seen in Nancy's curiosity regarding her ancestors. Does she ever reach "closure" regarding her own identity and place in the family?
10. Which, if any, of Mason's short story characters seems determined to carry on family traditions? Analyze why each feels this necessity.
Point of View Although a number of critics see ''Shiloh'' as a feminist saga of a woman flexing her muscles and taking flight, "Shiloh" is really Leroy's story. The story is told entirely from his point of view. Point of view, sometimes called narrative perspective, is the term used to describe the way in which the writer presents the material of a story to the reader. ''Shiloh'' is told from a third-person, limited point of view. That is, readers see only what Leroy sees and hear only what Leroy hears. In addition, because the story is told from Leroy's point of view, readers are privy to Leroy's thoughts and memories, but not to Norma Jean's or to her mother's. Because of this, readers' reactions to the others in the story are conditioned by Leroy's perspective.
Narrative The term "narrative" relates to how events unfold in a story. A narrative can be arranged chronologically, in which the events that occur first are depicted first, or according to any number of plans that the writer might want to follow. The narrative of "Shiloh" is in present tense, which gives readers the sense that the story is unfolding before their eyes. In addition, although the overall narration moves from an earlier point in time to a later point in time, there are flashbacks embedded in the story. Sometimes an event or thought in the present will trigger a memory for Leroy, and this is how readers learn about the Moffitts' past. For example, when Leroy buys marijuana from Stevie Hamilton, he reflects that his infant son, Randy, would have been about Stevie's age had he lived. This thought leads to the memory of the night of Randy's death.
Setting The setting of a story includes not only the geographical location in which the story is set but the time period of the story as well. The setting can also include the occupations of the characters and their religious, moral, emotional, and social environments. In "Shiloh," the geographic setting is western Kentucky as it existed in the early 1980s, when the story was written. In addition, Mason creates a world of working-class, marginally educated characters. In an interview with Lila Havens, Mason stated, "My characters are members of the shopping mall generation." These characters inhabit a world in transition. In "Shiloh," the old culture of rural Kentucky is being replaced by the suburban, consumer-oriented culture of late twentieth-century America. In addition to the contemporary setting of western Kentucky, Mason also refers to an earlier time m the title of the story and in the placement of its climactic scene. These references to Shiloh invoke the Civil War and the death of the Old South. Placing the breakup of the Moffitts' marriage in the Shiloh battlefield focuses readers' attention on the civil war between Norma Jean and Leroy and the birth of the New South.
Symbols and Imagery The terms symbol and image are closely related but not identical in meaning. In literature, a symbol is an object that stands for something else, usually an abstract idea. An image is a concrete picture and can function as a symbol. Often a writer will use repeated, similar images to give them symbolic meaning. In a short article in The Explicator, Stewart Cooke demonstrates the uses of imagery in "Shiloh." For example, Leroy's wrecked truck, sitting in the yard while Leroy sits in the house, is a symbol for the disabled Leroy himself. In addition, however, Mason describes the truck with this image: ''It sits in the backyard, like a gigantic bird that has flown home to roost." A bit later, she describes the way Norma Jean picks at cake crumbs "like a fussy bird." Leroy thinks about the way Norma Jean makes love as he watches birds at the feeder. Finally, in the last scene, Norma Jean stands waving her arms, as if she is about to take flight. As Cooke points out, through the use of bird imagery, Mason warns us that Norma Jean is about to leave Leroy, or, in the popular expression, "fly the coop."
Of course, the most obvious symbol in the story is Shiloh itself, a battlefield on which thousands of soldiers died; it becomes the final battlefield of the Moffitts' marriage. As Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr., points out, ''In the literature of the Southern renaissance Civil War battlefields and Confederate graveyards are usually extremely significant, often initiating profound meditation and interior probings." He suggests that Mason's story provides "one of the clearest statements of the contemporary loss of historical vision that was once so significant to the Southern mind." The significance of the Shiloh battlefield is lost on Leroy and Norma; they know it only as the spot where Mabel and Jet Beasley spent their honeymoon. Norma Jean and Leroy skirmish amidst the graves of fallen soldiers, yet Leroy fails to recognize the irony of the Moffitt civil war being played out on the site of so brutal a Civil War battle. He admits that he "is leaving out the insides of history." Consequently, just as he is unable to understand the significance of the battlefield, he is unable to understand the significance of this moment in his marriage.
1980s: Sudden infant death syndrome has been a recognized medical disease since 1970. In 1988, there are 5,476 infant deaths from SIDS in the United States.
1990s: Estimates regarding the number of deaths caused by SIDS in the United States range from 3,000 to 7,000 per year. Experts determine that putting babies to sleep on their backs can prevent SIDS. In 1994, only 30 percent of babies are put to sleep on their backs. By 1997, the number rises to 79 percent.
1980s: Marijuana use among high schoolers is steadily declining. By 1989, 33 percent of high school seniors report having smoked marijuana, down from 50 percent in 1979. Until the late 1980s, when the federal Drug Enforcement Administration holds hearings on reclassifying marijuana as a legal, prescribable substance, marijuana is quietly used as a medical treatment for some conditions.
1990s: Many experts still believe that the dangers of marijuana are unknown. Nevertheless, cultivation of marijuana in the United States is on the rise and accounts for nearly 25 percent of the U.S. market in 1990. In 1996, the use of marijuana for medical purposes, typically for glaucoma and to relieve nausea caused by cancer treatments, becomes legal in California and Arizona after voters approve controversial propositions.
1980s: After the introduction of laws in the 1970s that make divorce easier to obtain, divorce rates rise. In 1982, the divorce rate in the United States is 5.1 per 1,000 people.
1990s: It is widely held that one out of every two marriages ends in divorce. The U.S. Census Bureau notes that from 1970 to 1996, the number of divorced persons has quadrupled. On an average day in the United States, more than 3,000 divorces are finalized.
Sources Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. "The Ambiguous Grail Quest in 'Shiloh'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 223-26.
Lyons, Gene. A review of Shiloh and Other Stories in Newsweek, November 15,1982, p. 107
Mason, Bobbie Ann and Lila Havens. "Bobbie Ann Mason-A Conversation with Lila Havens," in The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction, 2nd ed., edited by Ann Charters, St. Martin's Press, 1987," pp. 1345-49.
Towers, Robert. A review of Shiloh and Other Stones in The New York Review of Books, December 16,1982, p. 38.
Tyler, Anne. A review of Shiloh and Other Stories in The New Republic, November 1,1982, p. 36.
Vigderman, Patricia. A review of Shiloh and Other Stories in The Nation, March 19,1983, p 345.
Wilhelm, Albert E. ''Private Rituals: Coping with Change in the Fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason,'' in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 28, No 2, Winter, 1987, pp. 271-82.
Further Reading "Bobbie Ann Mason," in Short Story Criticism, Vol. 4, edited by Thomas Votteler, Gale, 1990, pp 298-311. Includes reprinted criticism on Mason's short stories.
Bnnkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. "Finding One's History. Bobbie Ann Mason and Contemporary Southern Literature," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 20-33. Concentrates on the sense of history in Mason's work as well as Mason's place in the history of Southern literature.
Mason, Bobbie Ann, Bonnie Lyons, and Bill Oliver. An interview in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter, 1991, pp. 449-70. Covers Mason's work through 1991 and focuses on her understanding of the themes of her stories as well as her writing process.
Brinkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. “Finding One’s History: Bobbie Ann Mason and Contemporary Southern Literature.” Southern Literary Journal 19 (Spring, 1987): 22-33.
Flora, Joseph M. “Bobbie Ann Mason.” In Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Price, Joanna. Understanding Bobbie Ann Mason. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
Ryan, Maureen. “Stopping Places: Bobbie Ann Mason’s Short Stories.” In Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984.
Wilhelm, Albert. Bobbie Ann Mason: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1998