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Book review: ‘New Stories from the South’

ěNew Stories from the South 2009: The Yearís Best,î edited by Madison Smartt Bell.î Algonquin Paperbacks. 357 pp. $14.95.
By Cynthia Murphy
For the Salisbury Post
The literary season is changing from the lighter beach reading to serious fiction. One of the first harbingers of the new season is always “New Stories from the South.”
Each year’s collection is very different from the year before, and this year’s collection is no exception. The 2009 edition is a fascinating mix of stories from established and new authors.
I love the way this series features a different editor each year. Each one provides a different take on Southern literature. This year’s guest editor, Madison Smartt Bell, focuses on the impact of Hurricane Katrina. At times the storm almost seems like a character. It seems to be the guiding force for much of the collection. Yet there is not the feeling of sadness that one might expect. Instead, there is an overwhelming sense of hope.
The feeling of hope appears in the first story in the collection, Katherine Karlin’s “Muscle Memory.” Karlin set her story in post-Katrina New Orleans. The intriguing protagonist, Destiny, struggles to learn how to weld. Her deceased father was a welder, and Destiny knows that welding would pay much more than her current job at the shipyard. As Destiny’s story slowly unfolds, the reader realizes that her life has changed drastically since the storm, and she is clinging to her dream of a better life. Likewise, the final entry in the collection, Juyanne James’ “The Elderberries,” focuses on the search for something better in the wake of the storm. James takes a more literal approach to the search, but the concept is the same.
Although much of the collection shows the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, several of the most intriguing stories have nothing to do with the storm. They focus on important moments in ordinary lives.
One of the most poignant stories included here is Tayari Jones’ “Some Thing Blue.” This very short story describes a young woman’s feelings as she tries on a wedding dress. The setting is what makes this story interesting. It takes place in the dressing room of the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Ala. Amazingly, Jones packs a great deal of emotion in just two pages. This is the shortest story in the collection, but it is definitely one of the most moving.
Michael Knight’s “Grand Old Party” features another big moment in an otherwise ordinary life. It starts with a man standing on another man’s porch with a shotgun in his hands. The scene quickly develops into a portrait of an affair. Hildebran’s wife has started an affair with Howell Tate. Hildebran confronts them, and the story plays out as a sad and somewhat humorous confrontation. One interesting feature of “Grand Old Party” is its narration. Knight uses second-person narration to tell the story. The result is a different perspective on the action. The reader doesn’t even learn Hildebran’s name until near the end of the story. This technique adds suspense to the story and provides insight into Hildebran’s character.
The familiar theme of family secrets is also present in this year’s collection. This is handled particularly well in Kelly Cherry’s “Banger Finds Out.” Banger is a 12-year-old boy in Huntsville, Ala. His whole world changes when he discovers a picture of his grandfather as a child. Banger doesn’t know how to explain the photo because it doesn’t fit his memory of his grandfather. A teacher helps explain the photo, but the photo has an impact on both Banger and his mother. Cherry does a beautiful job of portraying the complex relationships between family members. Banger and his mother had placed Grandfather on a very high pedestal, and the discovery of the photo challenges their memories. Ultimately it leads to a greater understanding of each other, but their path is a bumpy one.
This year’s edition of “New Stories from the South” feels more unified than last year’s. The familiar sense of place is still present, but the perspective is just a bit different. The blend of established and new authors gives the collection a fresh look. This is a very entertaining collection; all of the stories are interesting and well-crafted, making it one of the most interesting entries in the series.
Cynthia Murphy is a Salisburian who enjoys short stories.

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