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Friday, May 23, 2014

Reunion with Old Friends

I feel like I just spent time with old friends after completing Ellen Gilchrist's most recent short story collection, Acts of God.  Initially, I was a bit disappointed in the book. Some of the stories felt a bit like fluff stuff. For instance, "Collateral" - about a single mother in the National Guard who helps out after Katrina - seems too much like chick lit.  But by the time I got to "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," and saw Anna Hand's niece had a starring role in this story about terrorist attacks in London, I felt right at home.  And in "The Dogs," I got to hear from good ole Rhonda Manning, who is up to her old tricks. "The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath" was a beautiful story about a woman taking her life in her own hands. "A Love Story" was a gem of a short, short story. And it just got better with the final two stories in the collection - "Jumping Off Bridges into Clean Water"  and "Hopedale: A History in Four Acts." All the stories in this book are centered on people dealing with natural and unnatural forces which are beyond their control - hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, disease, death - all acts of God.  And Ellen Gilchrist's unique voice - down to earth, honest and so real - make each one of these situations feel genuine and true. The stories feel like they are being told on the front porch.

Since finishing this book, I've been thinking a lot about why I adore the writing of Ellen Gilchrist. First, I think she is a master of the short story. Second, her characters are accessible. They are my people. One character in "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" who was a Jackson, MIssissippi society lady said, "I'm not interesting. I'm a cliche inside a self-fulfilling prophecy inside a stereotype." Whoa, Ellen nailed it with that line. I know that woman and many others like her.  Not only does Ellen Gilchrist write about my people, she also writes about my places - Jackson, New Orleans, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the Delta. Her characters populate my world and I feel like I'm with old friends.  Ellen Gilchrist's books are among the very short list of books I actually re-read. I relate to her characters even now, 31 years after I started reading them. I received my first Ellen Gilchrist book, In the Land of Dreamy Dreamsfrom my dear friend Beth in 1983. I guess you could say Ellen's characters and I have grown into middle age together.

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