by Elizabeth Spencer spans an acclaimed 57-year writing career that includes five O. Henry Awards. Returning many out-of-print works to circulation, this prestigious Modern Library collection of 26 stories and a novella will be a welcome addition for Spencer's many fans and will deservedly bring her work to the attention of a new generation of readers.
Born in Mississippi, Spencer lived in Italy and Montreal, Canada, before settling in North Carolina, and she brings an international perspective to her Southern story-telling roots. A lifelong friend of Eudora Welty and Robert Penn Warren, Spencer writes with the simple charm of Southern eccentrics who often learn about life through travel. An early coming of age story, "The Eclipse," narrates a young boy's journey with his beautiful music teacher. The seemingly simple tale is rich with detail ("he could tell the engineer by the great big cuffs on his gloves") and grows into allegory as the young man both clings to and outgrows his boyhood devotion.
The theme of illusion versus reality recurs often in Spencer's work, most notably in her million-selling novella The Light in the Piazza. Recounting a story of young love complicated by handicap, Spencer details the intertwined lives of an American mother and daughter and the young lover's Italian family. It's a haunting story of a mother's anxious hopes for her special daughter that unfolds against an Italian backdrop of shifting light and shadow.
The six new stories included in this volume continue to explore the complications of family life. In "First Child," Spencer brings the family into the 21st century with a modern tale of reluctant quasi-parenthood. "Owl," the final tale, narrates the quiet search of an empty nest woman for a remnant of meaning in her life.
Spencer writes with simplicity and clarity about people you will recognize. While she respects the intelligence of her readers don't expect a pat ending all tied up with a ribbon Spencer unfolds her stories through straightforward narrative, with just the right dusting of evocative description: "He let the sea sound, the salt air, invade him, like water permeating dry fabric." [from "First Child"] The Southern Woman is great literature, written to be enjoyed by everyday readers like you and me.
Mary Carol Moran is the author of Clear Soul: Metaphors and Meditations (Court Street Press). She teaches the Novel Writers' Workshop at Auburn University.