Style and Technique
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.
Form and Content
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 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...
(The entire section is 4,234 words.)