Monday, May 30, 2011

Out of the Mountains

While Meredith Sue Willis teaches novel writing at New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies, she hails from the mountains of West Virginia. Her latest collection of short stories, entitled Out of the Mountains: Appalachian Stories (from Ohio University Press, 2010) focuses on what makes 21st Century Appalachians unique. In an afterword Willis explains that part of her purpose in writing these stories was to explore what Appalachians retain and take along when they leave the mountains and also what Appalachians contribute to the larger culture in the way of insights and attitudes.

The first story, "Triangulation" sets up the relationship of Appalachians to the larger world by explaining the navigational process of locating an unknown point by the formation of a triangle. The structure of the story cleverly describes a triangle between what was going on in the world in 1917 and life events of the narrator's grandmother in Bold Camp,Wise County. While the grandmother stirs her wash in a pot over an open fire, an artist in Austria named Klimt discovers the flatness of pattern he favors by viewing a distant village through a spyglass. Meanwhile, socialist Emma Goldman is chugging through the mountains on a train, headed for prison. Out the window, she sees a woman stirring her wash over an open fire. Willis locates her ancestors at one point of a triangle in relation to the history of the 20th Century. "Here I begin to locate myself," she writes, and the reader begins a journey from the bird's eye view, a cinematic storytelling style that will gradually zoom in to the fascinating characters who people this collection.

Such a character is Merlee Savage, RN, featured in three of the stories at different points in her life, before she becomes a nurse, caring for a dying woman in her mountain vacation home, after she becomes a nurse, helping another woman overthrow the oppression of her now-dead husband, and finally in her later years, making peace with her own estranged spouse. Another recurring character is Roy Critchfield, who quits the high school baseball team and starts seeing "little harlots" everywhere after his mother leaves his brutal father. He resurfaces in another story as the scandalous interim youth minister for the First Baptist Church of Kingfield. This story, told from the point of view of a hilarious trio of elder women, shines the light on the complex mountaintop removal issue. Another character, named Elvissa--named after Elvis Presley by her mother, makes New York City and the idea of becoming Jewish, her hobby. There is even a story about how the awkwardness of homophobia can intrude on a loving family's time to grieve.

I loved this collection because it is not just about the rich folk heritage of an Appalachian past, but about how contemporary people from the mountains deal with moving out or moving on. "The Appalachian kind of moving on," says the author in her afterword, "is often fraught with loss, nostalgia, and a sharp awareness that even as we gain something, we lose." The stories from Out of the Mountains make me wish I knew these people. I probably do.

This review was originally aired on WVXU's Around Cincinnati on May 15, 2011. For an audio link, check the lower right of this page.

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