‘Nancy Culpepper’ by Bobbie Ann Mason

Nancy Culpepper by Bobbie Ann Mason, 1981

The magic trick:

Demonstrating a life split between two worlds

Mason debuts here a character she would return to throughout her career in novel and story form. This one serves as a very good introduction/summary. The key idea is that she a person operating in split dimensions. That makes it sound like science fiction. It’s not. Nancy is from rural Kentucky. She lives in Philadelphia. She is caught in between worlds.

I see this very clearly in my wife – a woman who is from Mason’s Western Kentucky and now lives and works in Washington D.C. It can be a tough thing – to love and embrace the values you grew up with even as you reject and move beyond them at the same time.

This story portrays that essence very well. Mason uses three simple tricks. She raises the notion of defining home by setting the story in the middle of Granny’s move to a retirement home. She very clearly shows Nancy’s two worlds by physically isolating her from her husband and child. And then we have the possibly-not-very-effective Nancy Culpepper doppelganger in the form of the mysterious great-great aunt of the same name. It never really connected with me, but it’s a clear nod toward Nancy’s dual existence.

All of it adds up to a clear picture, a character fighting to find herself, and it sets up future stories exploring her world very nicely. And that’s quite a trick on Mason’s part.

The selection:

Nancy tells Robert not to think about moving. There is static on the line. Nancy has trouble hearing Jack. “We’re your family too,” he is saying.

“I didn’t mean to abandon you,” she says.

“Have you seen the pictures yet?”

“No. I’m working up to that.”

“Nancy Culpepper, the original?”

“You bet,” says Nancy, a little too quickly. She hears Robert hang up. “Is Robert O.K.?” she asks through the static.

“Oh, sure.”

“He doesn’t think I moved without him?”

“He’ll be all right.”

“He didn’t tell me good-bye.”

“Don’t worry,” says Jack.

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