Southern Scribe
       our culture of storytelling

 

 Fiction Review    

 
                  
 
 
                     Tongues of Flame
                 By Mary Ward Brown
                 University of Alabama Press, Reprint, 2001
                 ISBN: 0-8173-0722-2

 

 

 

 

When Mary Ward Brown was asked why she wrote, she replied " I just wanted to do the stories. I don't know why. Maybe the same instinct as ‘Kilroy was here.’"  Ms. Brown has served up a generous slice of the South and by the time you get to the last story Beyond New Forks in her collection of southern stories, you're ready for a second helping, starting over with the first story “New Dresses.”  Tongues of Flame is poignant storytelling, as lasting as some of the best in her class like Katherine Porter, who influenced her, Flannery O'Connor, and Eudora Welty. 

In “New Dresses,” Lisa has to escort her mother-in-law Mrs. Worthy to a department store to buy a dress. As soon as Lisa delivers the old woman to the store clerk, Lisa is abruptly dismissed. She begins to wonder if she had been attentive enough or if she is being censored. With the unkind action still fresh in her mind, Lisa makes the assumption, that Southerners were masters of indirection. Ironically, Lisa's early dismissal allows her the time to shop for herself and find an article of clothing she's been longing for. 

In “The Barbecue,” Brown sets us in a general store then shows us that on a mantle hung a wall clock in an oak case, a pendulum swinging back and forth hypnotically. The ticking seemed to make babies stop crying and old people doze. Not all the old people are sleeping. At least one couple is busy trying to figure out why they were not invited to the biggest and best barbecue ever, while others shop for necessities and still others are going about the daily chore of living. As with many authors, several of these stories are taken from Brown's life. From The Barbecue: With a flashlight, Tom led the way to the modest bungalow he had built conveniently near the store. It's interesting to note that Brown's family owned a store with a bungalow nearby. 

Brown's great respect for the general-public is evident in her prose: every single word counts, no digressing into obscurity. She writes with a powerful perceptiveness that moves through rural matters to universal concerns, treating the most mundane of chores, like buying a dress, to a monumentally important deed of caring for a prized Amaryllis, with equal importance. To her, life is important -- as important as it is to Welty. In her "A Worn Path,” the title character makes the same journey over and over in search of medicine for her ailing grandson, and yet the smallness of this deed is magnified with love by Welty.

Brown’s stories are the kind lovingly told to a neighbor over the back fence or while sipping a cool mint julep, feet propped up on the porch banister.  Tongues of Flame won the 1987 PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award. No wonder. The meaning within these stories is a seed left to the reader, which grows in that revered space between reading and understanding. A denouement Brown worked so many years for, since 1950 when she published her first stories.

 

Mae F. Barrena
Southern Scribe Reviews

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