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 Short Story Collection Review    

 

 

Ellen Gilchrist: Collected Stories
By Ellen Gilchrist
576 pages
Hardback, Little Brown & Company, 2000, ISBN: 0316299480
Trade paper, Back Bay Books, 2001, ISBN: 0316193658
 
 
 

Taking on a project such as reading this important collection, winner of the National Book Award, is daunting to say the least.  However, after interviewing Ellen Gilchrist, I felt a few comments on this work were in order. 

First, if you are looking for tightly plotted and politically charged personal statements written by a person with an agenda, don’t bother looking here.  These are stories that are lively, insightful, and filled with real, (or as near to real as one can be), personalities.  I studied examples from every period collection, of which there are thirty-four from seven different books, and I found them all inspiring. 

Generally speaking they are character-oriented (if not character-driven) and biased from their divergent points of view, and not from the author’s.  I enjoyed the refreshing repartee of the spoiled, the loving, the heady-minded, the selfish and the sharing alike.   

For instance, in the first collection, “The Famous Poll at Jody’s Bar,” we see a young woman heading for trouble because of her misplaced first love for a young man.  In the second collection, “Music” stands out as a story with what amounts to a sidebar of a spoiled girl giving up her virginity to a man she just met, in order to get back at her domineering father.  In these, men are the background to the battle these two young women are fighting within themselves.  They are villains, out a sort.  Yet, in “The Young Man,” in the third collection and “Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle,” from the fourth, men are valued; although in “The Young Man,” only as consorts.   

To be sure, these are stories from the woman’s perspective, yet they are so compelling, as they turn on a dime and backtrack or erase conceptions long-held by readers, or else burst out the gate and leave the reader in the dust, figuratively-speaking of course.  Take “In the Land of Dreamy Dreams,” where a socially-advantaged tennis club member is outdone by a handicapped Jewish girl who dares to beat her at her own game, and “Victory Over Japan,” from the book by the same name, where the tempo of the story is stopped and usurped by the news of the war, leaving the first part of the narrative not only unresolved, but looming dangerously over the main character.  Pure inspiration!   

“The Uninsured,” from The Age of Miracles, I was told by Ms. Gilchrist, was recited by her at the Lincoln Center, where the hilarious letters to the insurance company tickled the audience in attendance and brought the house down.  I can believe it, after taking them in myself.  She said things in it that I wish I had put in a letter to my own insurance company.   

Two later stories: “Fort Smith,” and “Witness to the Crucifixion,” were, for me, especially interesting, as they used the setting of my native Arkansas as backdrop and parcel for the evolving storylines.  The characters were ones I could identify with and the stories were warm and poetic.  

So, do I use too many superlatives to describe Gilchrist’s work?  I don’t think so.  I enjoyed it so much more than so-called literary works being produced today by many of the Southern men in this region.  Some motives were rather lost on me—possibly precisely because I am male.  I didn’t laugh out loud at the antics of both the young and older spoiled women in the collections.  I find them more sympathetic than humorous.  I also didn’t like the references that amounted to singling out Christians for put-downs, which were included—not if you aren’t going to give equal time to mauling Muslims, jesting Jews, and humiliating Hindus. 

And the men seemed to be out for one thing only.  Now, what could that be?  Maybe I’ll ask my wife about that.  Seriously, it seemed to relegate them to a place somewhat lower than occurs in nature.  However, I do understand that it was done for the sake of either humor or situational perspective.  I’ve heard men bashing, and this is not it!  It is the well-intentioned feel for the reader and the drive to care for her characters that prevents the author from trashing anyone, (even if they truly deserve it!)  

So, thank you Ms. Gilchrist for stories well-told and for writing about the South. 

 

Robert L. Hall 
Southern Scribe Reviews
 

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