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Short Story Collection Review    

 

 

Miss America Kissed Caleb: Stories
By Billy C. Clark
University Press of Kentucky, 2003
Hardcover, $24.95 (173 pages)
ISBN: 0-8131-2296-1
 
 
 

Billy C. Clark invokes the Appalachian homes--Sourwood, KY and environs--of Caleb and his younger brother with crisply nostalgic details of scene, that at once seems to protect his subject matter while at the same time inviting readers to glimpse into the rural mountain past and perhaps take away some kernels of Clark's wisdom when they close the book.  Descriptions of scene like the following from "The Cornstalk Fiddle" are typical both of the nearly complete loss of the lifestyle described in Clark's collection and of the completeness and exactitude that Clark brings to his creation of Appalachian culture:   

"After plowing, with the a-harrow hooked to the singletree, Nathan got to ride the combination tooth harrow disk-drag to help hold it to the land while it pulverized and smoothed the soil for planting.  Shifting the dirt, worms were often brought to the surface, and Nathan, given a can and instructions from his father beforehand, carefully pinched the worms out from between the teeth of the harrow to use later for fishing; fish that his grandfather had promised to fry on top of the Franklin stove, adding touches of butter that Nathan had churned from the Jersey's milk."   

The Nashville Agrarians would be proud of Clark's descriptions, thick with the complexity, joy, and independence afforded by agricultural work.   

Clark is strongest, in fact, when describing the labor that his characters perform.  And labor is deeply and centrally bound to each of the stories.  Thanie and the narrator in "The Ring"--in many ways the finest story in the collection--work to supply the mountain home of Pearl, Thanie's ailing mother and, the narrator believes, quite possibly a witch.  The process of teaching the boy-narrator about local plants and animals, herbal remedies, and folk wisdom is also the process of transmitting this vanishing knowledge to the reader: "[Thanie] talked of herbs and how to make willow chairs, the frames by soaking willow limbs in the creek until they were soft enough to tie like strings, and the seats from hickory bark stripped off tall saplings and also soaked in creek water."   

The title story ("Miss America Kissed Caleb") and "The Jimson Dog" reveal the wit and humor that Clark brings to his subject.  "The Jimson Dog" develops a wry satire of an urban Cincinnati woman by the parallel description of the "society dog" with a foul temper that bites and snaps with impunity because, Caleb explains,  "'a dog that high up in society can do what it wants to.'"  "Miss America Kissed Caleb" humorously and appropriately enough for contemporary times describes the pitfalls of misplaced patriotic trust.   

Billy C. Clark is the author of thirteen books; his stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, including Best American Short Stories.

 

Sean Wells
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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