Family life as perceived by 50 WNC authors
by Rob Neufeld
If you have biases against small press books or anthologies of local writers’ work, I recommend you lay them aside and take a look at “It’s All Relative” (Stone Ivy Press), 52 stories and poems by 50 WNC women authors writing about family.
You also might be skeptical about the theme; it’s so broad. Yet, there’s a shadowy, down-to-earth, and at times magical quality to the tellings that makes the collection striking and significant.
The editors, Celia Miles and Nancy Dillingham, who have collaborated on three other such collections, exhibit an eye (eyes?) for good writing. Consequently, we become familiar with authors who, in some cases, are finding new, powerful voices to employ.
Nancy Dillingham, who has a story and a poem in the collection, is not a new voice. There’s a Dillingham section in my library that now contains eight books, starting with “New Ground,” an album of stories and poems published by Ralph Roberts’ WorldComm Books in 1998.
That’s the way it is with writers. By the time someone discovers you and calls you “new,” you’ve already got a veteran’s pile of manuscripts behind you.
At any rate, Dillingham, independent of universities and New York publishing circles, has developed a mastery of her craft as well as a distinctive style. The wondrous, grim, and familial in her mountain experience come to light in compact lines that are both facets of and links in her narratives.
What we get is poetic, in a dream-minded way, and accessible, as with these humble garden observations from the poem, “Summer Etude”:
“Crook-necked squash/ curl like tiny kittens. // Cucumbers hide/ in viny darkness.”
Let’s talk about witches. If you’re thinking about fairy tale or Satanic characterizations, you’re missing the granny for the grimace.
There’s a long history of strong mountain women being feared as Baba Yagas.
Kaye Barley tells a story, “Aunt Peep and Uncle Leo” that starts off as a girl’s fond recollection of summertime visits with her aunt; and turns into something else after she overhears arguments and then gets news of Aunt Peep’s death.
At the funeral, Aunt Peep has a message for her niece that’s intended to not let the truth about Leo die.
In Patricia Lynn Collins’ story, “Second Sight,” a woman with an uncanny ability to read the future in cards anoints her granddaughter, the narrator, as her spiritual heiress—a mantle the young woman tries out once and then puts aside.
“Nana was the matriarch of our extended family,” the narrator says by way of introduction, “and everyone did as she said. She was tough, opinionated, and never missed a chance to state her opinion, which was often critical and sometimes cruel.”
One could view fortune-telling as a practical way to control others, though in this and other stories, there is a dramatic inclusion of supernatural effects.
Dillingham’s tale, “Whips and Chains,” is a classic ghost story.
First, we get a glimpse of dour Uncle John sitting on a porch above a creek; next, we hear the narrator’s daddy saying, after John’s wife, Aunt Dock, had died, that he’d never go back in that house.
Then comes the telling: how mourners had heard chains coming up stairs and had been trapped in a room with Aunt Dock’s body when the door slammed shut and stuck—“maybe it had swelled from the night before.”
The story’s not over. Uncle John’s abuse of Aunt Dock had taken a particularly horrifying form, the narrator learns; and, in the end, she is witness to the agency of John’s death.
The dark stories and poems dominate the first quarter of the book. They remind me of Mildred Haun’s Appalachian classic, “The Hawk’s Done Gone.”
Maria Fire’s story, “Everything Good,” tells of a woman, Maria, who tells her mom about being abused by her father, but first confronts her mother about her self-destructive behavior.
“Mother,” she says, “sober people don’t splash blood around the house or barely miss hemorrhaging to death because they’re too drunk to call an ambulance.”
“You know,” the mother responds with the head tilt of a predator, “I worry about you sometimes, too, honey, how crazy you get.”
Holly Simms, in “Don’t Tell,” tells about a mother who says she can’t take it anymore, and is taken to a state hospital. When she comes home, her daughter hides her liquor bottles, but reveals the hiding place, with a feeling of lost childhood, when her father says, “Holly, tell her where they are.”
In her poem, “Burdett Barn,” Martha Adams recounts a family trip to Kansas relatives, and recalls swinging from a rope swing, the intimacy of egg-collecting, and flopping down in hay by the horse stalls.
Then a boy cousin, “talking softly as if I’m grown, like him/ says he has something for me. He/ reaches down, takes my hand/ guides it to a bristled place between his legs.”
By design, it seems, the rest of the book takes a different turn. There’s Sandra Dillingham’s two-page, one-sentence poem about old ladies gossiping; Nancy Sales Cash’s rendition of a mother and daughter sparring over what to make for Thanksgiving dinner; Blanch Ledford’s genial account of a father competing with his potato-growing brother by planting by the signs.
The opening and closing pieces in the anthology are poems about protective and nurturing mothers, so there really is a form. Movement toward the light is discernible, but not simply progressive.
A kind of light
Martha O’Quinn’s story, “A Common Thread,” tells about two poor families, one black, one white, who survive a rock-throwing incident by stitching up a gash and returning to a carefree existence.
Julia Nunnally Duncan, in “Charlie’s Knife,” writes about continuing to cherish a handsome, self-exiled, war vet uncle even after learning about his adulterous and violent behavior.
In Gwendie Camp’s story, “An Instant Family,” a girl confronts a man who has taken up residence in the house of her grandfather, which her jailed father now owns.
The man says that he was told he could stay there by his daddy, Reginald Whitehouse, whom everyone calls Sonny.
“Oh, law,” the girl says. “Sonny don’t have any kids.”
“He has me,” the man says, “He just didn’t know it till recently.”
The entries in “It’s All Relative” range from one to five pages in length, which works well with tales of the bizarre or with poetic revelations.
Yet, many of the realistic short fiction works manage to wrap up gratifyingly, too.
Celia Miles’ story, “The Forks of Envy,” begins with a nice narrative trick. The narrator philosophizes about how beauty and brains relate to freedom and success, and notes how she was ordained with middling attributes.
“But it’s not me this story is about,” she says. “This is Bryonette’s story.”
Bryonette is the canary among the Haslip family wrens. One day, she learns that a clerk had misspelled her name on her birth certificate. Her mother had named her Byronette—Byr not Bry—and, in a curtain-raising moment, recites a Lord Byron poem.
A few days later, the narrator sees her sister smoothing her fingernails and blurts, “Does my Lord need anything from the kitchen?” Bryonette’s face reveals hurt, and then coldness.
“That implacable coldness could then and always chill my very soul. I retreated, defeated without a word from her.”
Perfect. That ending contains both the love and conflict that bind family members.
Celia Miles and Nancy Dillingham present “It’s All Relative”; and Dillingham presents “1950,” at Mountain Made, Grove Arcade, 1 Page Ave #123, Asheville, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Nov. 14 (350-0307).
Miles and Dillingham read from their books at Grateful Steps, 159 S Lexington Ave, Asheville, 6 p.m., Nov. 17 (277-0998); and sign books at Murphy’s Curiosity Shop Bookstore, Nov. 28 (835-7433).