Author: Laura Hunter
Publisher: Bluewater Publications
Price: $18.95 (Paperback)
In 2019, Laura Hunter, a retired educator, published her first book, “Beloved Mother,” set in Appalachia, near Boone, N.C. This was a sprawling novel, covering several generations of mountain families, whites and native Americans, with a bit of Indian metaphysics thrown in.
Most late-in-life first novels with small presses don't do much, but “Beloved Mother” surprised everyone and brought in a small collection of prizes including the Indie Book Award grand prize.
Now Hunter is back with a collection of 18 short stories. These are also set in Appalachia, the last gasps of it, in a fictional town called Copeland's Crossing, Alabama. From that village one road runs south to Tuscaloosa and one runs northeast to Cullman.
The stories are set from the 1930's to the 1990's but conditions don't improve much. One family has electricity in the later 30’s. Others are envious.
Life, as in much Southern fiction, is close to the land but this land does not yield much comfort. It is a rough, isolated place.
Family life is about all these people have and that can be rough. The characters in these stories are not as wicked as Faulkner’s Snopeses or as demented and genetically challenged as Erskine Caldwell’s Lesters, but their lives are narrow and there is little margin for error. The men drink, have not explored their feminine side, and tend to be selfish and violent.
To illustrate, perhaps it would be useful to focus on one of the shorter pieces, "The Last Time an Angel Passed.”
The narrator, a grown woman, tells of how, as an infant, she "came to lie with her mother in her coffin.”
(Let me say that a number of these stories feature coffins. Death is ever-present in these communities, especially the death of children.)
In this case it was her mother who "reached into the sprawling briars for a thumb-sized dewberry” and was bitten by a "thick-bodied rattler” on the hand and lip.
The narrator's father, to comfort his sobbing three-month-old, puts her in the casket, in the crook of her mother's arm, then leaves to return several hours later, intoxicated.
Daddy’s brother, only a few weeks later, was accidentally caught in a chicken coop with a rabid hound. He died.
Daddy and his brother’s widow make a family and raise the children, "like Ruth and Boaz."
Even when the situation is not as raw and desperate as that, it can be emotionally painful. Even in Dogpatch, there is social caste, hierarchy and snobbery.
A longer story, “Boogollies, Lace Curtains, and a Dog in the House," is set in 1943.
Maggie, who had been a town girl, has married Carl. She wants to keep a nice house. Carl is obsessed with keeping hunting dogs.
Most Saturday nights, Carl and all the men go hunting with their dogs, and the women, as arrogant and fussy as any on Park Avenue, stay together, sewing and gossiping. Maggie, the newcomer, cannot please them. She uses her precious coupons to get coffee and sugar and bakes a pound cake. She really tries, but her house is not nice enough. She lacks fine things. A puppy gets loose and there is a catastrophe, funny in a painful Three Stooges kind of way.
These stories are elemental, stories of survival. This is not Joyce's “Dubliners,” but there are epiphanies, moments of realization and change. The prose, like the characters, is not slick but there is an elemental power in these stories and they will find readers.