Reader’s Journal: Shiloh and Other Stories, by Bobbie Ann Mason

Bobbie Ann Mason is one of those authors whose works I’m always meaning to read, but when it comes right down to picking out books and reading them, I forget about her. When I was casting around for titles to put on my Short Story Challenge reading list, her name popped right into my head, so I suppose it was meant to be—I chose her first collection, Shiloh and Other Stories. Particularly with stories, I like to begin with first collections and work my way forward, because I think a writer develops differently through short stories than through novels. Short stories are a specific craft, and they feel more personal—even if they aren’t biographical—because you can see the writer change, get better, develop tics and drop bad habits. With novels, the writer conducts an orchestra—if the story hits a false note, you might not recognize it, distracted as you might be by other subplots, by suspense. A short story, though, is the author alone with an acoustic guitar and a spotlight. One mistake can ruin an entire set, put the whole show on the wrong course.

In Shiloh and Other Stories, Mason explores simple territory, the lives of small-town dreamers and earnest farmers trying to get through retirement, illness, divorce, or just the changing times. Almost all of the stories are set in Western Kentucky, that point where the South meets the Midwest, so her characters tend to be less dark, less plagued by the dense woods, alcoholism, religious fanaticism, or all-around Gothic sensibility than those of more Southern writers like Flannery O’Connor or Larry Brown. In many ways these stories made me think of Haven Kimmel’s wonderful memoir (published several decades after these stories), A Girl Named Zippy. Both writers have such a talent for looking at the most everyday people and events through their microscopic lenses and finding the tiny hairs and moles, the cracks and hiccups and strangeness that make the ordinary unique. Just as Kimmel’s stories are so vivid and well told that they read like the best fiction, Mason’s stories are so grounded they seem to be true.

In my favorite story from the collection, “The Rookers,” Mary Lou Skaggs comes to realize the burden of her growing power over her husband, who becomes more reclusive with each passing day: “Mary Lou suddenly realizes that Mack calls the temperature number because he is afraid to talk on the telephone, and by listening to a recording, he doesn’t have to reply. It’s his way of pretending that he’s involved. He wants it to snow so he won’t have to go outside. He is afraid of what might happen. But it occurs to her that what he must really be afraid of is women. Then Mary Lou feels so sick and heavy with her power over him that she wants to cry.” This is a thread that runs through all of Mason’s stories, the quiet power women have in families, the binding ties they create with the lightest and most ethereal threads that hold their worlds together like the thickest rope no matter how far family members might stray. I suppose what Mason is ultimately exploring here, though, is that thing called home, the people and the place that make up a person no matter where she is in the world.

In “Nancy Culpepper” (which is also the name of Mason’s latest story collection), Mason explores these ties through the story of a woman torn between her childhood home and her marriage home, between two versions of family. Nancy Culpepper travels to Kentucky to help her parents move her grandmother into a nursing home, and while she’s there she hopes to find pictures and learn about an ancestor of hers by the same name. The story weaves through time, back and forth between Kentucky and Nancy’s wedding day in New York (her parents unaware of and uninvited to her nuptials), between her vision of her family and her husband’s: “After supper, Nancy showed Jack the farm. As they walked through the fields, Nancy felt that he was seeing peaceful landscapes–arrangements of picturesque cows, an old red barn. She had never thought of the place this way before; it reminded her of prints in a dimestore.” Nancy’s husband Jack is a photographer, and Nancy herself is searching for the elusive photo of her ancestor, but the story seems to question the notion of what is seen and what is real, how vision of a person or a thing is skewed by the seer, by his or her need for the person or thing to be something else entirely than what is presented. In the end, Nancy finds the photo, an old wedding portrait of her ancestor Nancy Culpepper and her husband on an old brocade sofa: “The woman looks frightened–of the camera perhaps–but nevertheless her deep-set eyes sparkle like shards of glass…The man seems bewildered, as if he did not know what to expect, marrying a woman who has her eyes fixed on something so far away.”

All of Mason’s women seem to have their eyes fixed on some point beyond the horizon, even as they’re bound to families and farms. They are as knowledgeable and aware in many ways as women in the stories of, say, Alice Munro, but they are also less likely to run. It’s as though, by staying rooted in one place, they expect their true selves to appear one day, walk across a field, and announce they’ve come home to stay.

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