With her 1981 short story collection, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, Ellen Gilchrist set the standard against which her own and other American authors' work is measured. That first collection introduced Rhoda Manning and Nora Jane Whittington, two recurring characters in Gilchrist's fiction. Half of the stories in her new collection, I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting with My Daddy, also feature Rhoda, Gilchrist's most beloved creation.
Though Gilchrist's characters live closer to Tara than Tobacco Road, their hearts still break like lesser mortals. Rhoda Manning older, wiser, with a bruised heart and ego to match offers stories about her father, a formidable patriarch, fomenter of family intrigue, a man Rhoda loves and resembles more than she admits. In these stories, Rhoda comes to terms with a host of flawed relationships. "GštterdŠmmerung," written in 2000, is eerily prescient, with Nora Jane Whittington, the "self-taught anarchist and quick-change artist" from In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, confronting an evil that foreshadows the carnage of 9/11.
Each of the stories is a gem, dealing with loss and redemption in equal measure: a young man mourns the loss of his child through abortion; a hairdresser mourns the loss of the only woman he could love, if only he could love women; a young girl loses her alter ego and fills the void in unexpected ways. Gilchrist wounds her characters with surgical precision and then with a healer's art, gives them a second chance at life.
Gilchrist has a natural gift for poetry that translates flawlessly to the short story form. Her characters rise from the ruins of Faulkner's decaying Old South, more adept at burning bridges than burning barns, a resilient breed that personifies the New South. Eudora Welty said that "some stories leave a train of light behind them, meteor-like, so that much later than they strike our eyes we may see their meaning like an aftereffect." Gilchrist's writing is like that, full of stories to read and reread for their humor, unflinching honesty and universal humanity that defies class and regional boundaries. Mary Garrett writes from Middle Tennessee.