Shiloh by Bobbie Ann Mason, 1980
The magic trick:
Telling the story of a deteriorating marriage by using a third character (the wife’s mother) to shade the narrative in interesting and infinite ways
It’s Bobbie Ann Mason Week on the SSMT site, which means a nice trip to western Kentucky.
“Shiloh” is such a good story, it’s tough to know where to start. I’ll highlight the inclusion of Norma Jean’s mother.
The story centers on the deteriorating marriage of Leroy and Norma Jean. There’s no arguing that. The mother is in the middle of all of it, though. She judges Leroy to the point of hatred, but she also comes to his aid when she feels her own anger toward Norma Jean as she pursues a life and knowledge base beyond her upbringing.
It’s complicated stuff. And Mason – like a lot of those writers of the late 70s in the Carver, Beattie, Lish mold – never tells the reader what is going on behind the action. All we have to go on is what we see these three characters do, so there are endless relationships and nuances to consider.
The epic closing scene is intertwined with the mother, too. The Shiloh trip was her idea for the couple, motivated by a bizarre and complex combination of nostalgia, anger and hurt. It’s a story to read and reread, consider and reconsider – and all of those thoughts will be shaped through the character of Norma Jean’s mother. And that’s quite a trick on Mason’s part.
One day, Mabel is there before Norma Jean gets home from work, and Leroy finds himself confiding in her. Mabel, he realizes, must know Norma Jean better than he does.
“I don’t know what’s got into that girl,” Mabel says. “She used to go to bed with the chickens. Now you say she’s up all hours. Plus her a-smoking. I like to died.”
“I want to make her this beautiful home,” Leroy says, indicating the Lincoln Logs. “I don’t think she even wants it. Maybe she was happier with me gone.”
“She don’t know what to make of you, coming home like this.”
“Is that it?”
Mabel takes the roof off his Lincoln Log cabin. “You couldn’t get me in a log cabin,” she says. “I was raised in one. It’s no picnic, let me tell you.”
“They’re different now,” says Leroy.
“I tell you what,” Mabel says, smiling oddly at Leroy.
“Take her on down to Shiloh. Y’all need to get out together, stir a little. Her brain’s all balled up over them books.”
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