Saturday, January 7, 2012

Bobbie Ann Mason--Shiloh and Other Stories (1982)

In the title story, the coexisting layers of history have different meanings to different characters.  History—a connection to a sense of larger forces--is seen in opposition to ordinary life.  The events which are most important to people’s lives are not necessarily mapped onto history.
In “Third Monday,” the last story in this collection, a character observes that, “The twentieth century’s taking all the mysteries out of life” (226).  However, what this collection of stories show is that despite all of these changes, life is still full of the mysteries of life, love, and death.  What the twentieth century has in fact done is bring about enough change that the old answers—marriage until death do us part, job loyalty, and unshakeable job and family loyalty—are no longer dependable.
The collection contains several of Mason’s most anthologized stories, including the title story and “Residents and Transients.”  In “Shiloh,” truck driver Leroy is home on disability leave, which has thrown his marriage to Norma Jean off-balance.  Home again, Leroy sees the changes to his small Kentucky town, changes which he missed when he was on the road.  Unable to adapt, Leroy and Norma Jean take a trip to Shiloh, the Civil War battle site (and location of his mother-in-law’s honeymoon).  It’s at Shiloh that Norma Jean announces that she wants to leave Leroy. 
In what some critics refer to as “Kmart realism,” these stories depict a South (usually Western Kentucky) in which old referents—such as Shiloh—have lost their mythic hold, and characters struggle (with varying degrees of success) to find new symbols and traditions.  This is a South where children are used to divorce and adults buy pot in the Kmart parking lot; women undergo chemo for breast cancer; and family ties become complicated and are forced to stretch.  People marry outsiders and leave Kentucky, and the outside world invades the small towns and farming communities.  Despite all of this, however, Mason leaves the reader with the impression that the famous sense of place of the South will remain, though it might mutate.  Ultimately, she seems to come down on the side of family as the fundamental source of the South, as the ties between people are what she highlights again and again in these stories.  In Mason’s South, the farm may be gone, but the ties of family to the land cannot be undone.

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