Tuesday, December 18, 2007

In It Wasn’t All Dancing and Other Stories, by Mary Ward Brown

In It Wasn't All Dancing and Other Stories (Univ. of Alabama Press, 2001), her second story collection, Mary Ward Brown continues the exploration of small-town and rural Alabama life that she began in Tongues of Flame.  The central theme of these stories is age and change.  Brown considers these themes through stories about widows coping with isolation and uncertainty and through stories of others unsettled by change.  The title story is told from the sick bed of a once vivacious and (by her own account) self-centered woman, Rose Merriweather, who knows she will soon die.  She virtually never gets out of bed.  She must cope with her own concerns of memory loss and identity along with the knowledge that her daughter (who has little to do with her) is gradually selling off family possessions to pay the cost of caring for her ailing mother.  The friendship that Rose tries to develop with the black nurse who is taking care of her allows Brown to explore another facet of changing race relations in the rural South.

Some of these stories are contemporary while others range back as far as the 1950s.  Many concern disappointments of one sort or another.  In "The Birthday Cake," the narrator and her older sister come to terms with a close friend's death.  In another, "Once in a Lifetime," a woman once considered the most beautiful girl in her high school lives in a small apartment with her adolescent daughter.  She is divorced after an unhappy marriage to an abusive husband.  While working in a restaurant, she meets a man from her high school who admits to having always been attracted to her.  They begin an affair, and at last the woman is truly happy, but when her young daughter becomes pregnant she breaks off the relationship.  The whole focus of the story falls on the woman's disappointment in life.  It is reminiscent of some of the stories in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, especially those concerned with the character Kate Swift, though Brown's stories are less intense and psychologically intrusive than Anderson's.

One story, "Swing Low: A Memoir," is actually a memoir about Brown's mother and a black man named William who worked for her most of his adult life.  Not always the most industrious of workers, and sometimes a petty thief, the man is devoted to Brown's mother, who invariably succeeds in talking her husband out of firing him each time some transgression has occurred.

Brown's attitudes towards African Americans and race probably reflect the sentiments of many rural white Southerners during the Civil Rights era.  To many readers her stories may seem anachronistic, concerned as they are with issues and events that occurred decades in the past. She writes to an extent from the viewpoint of the white residents whose position of power and privilege was overturned by the civil rights movement.  Her stories recall a particular kind of relationship between blacks and whites of the pre-civil rights South—one of friendship and mutual dependence.  Some might argue that such relationships never existed, but Brown clearly believes they did. At the same time, she seems aware that change was inevitable and necessary. And she accepts in her stories that many of the assumptions held by whites before the civil rights era (such as the notion that black servants always loved the families they worked for) were sometimes presumptuous.  It's important to have this perspective, to understand the reactions of rural, conservative whites to the civil rights movement, to appreciate their altered situations. Brown is not an ideological writer. She records human relationships as she sees and remembers them along with the factors that shaped them.

Brown is particularly effective in such stories as "A Meeting on the Road" in dramatizing the consternation that many Southern whites must have felt when time-worn social codes and conventions were challenged by events they never anticipated. The story concerns a lawyer who loses his job as town attorney when an election upends the racial balance on the county commission.  He is fired by the end of the first meeting and must come to terms with the reality that the job he thought was his by rights no longer belongs to him.  Towards the end of the story he encounters on a country road the grandson of the African American woman who raised him. They almost come to blows.  The outcome of this story is both humorous and serious—it confirms the new position of the main character, and his bemused acceptance of the change that has come to his world.

Sometimes what's at stake in these stories may seem small.  In "The House that Asa Built" a mother leaves her husband after he buys a television set rather than the washing machine she badly needs.  After spending several days with her sister's out-of-control children and their sometimes drunken and abusive father, she returns home to the husband whom now she sees in a different way, and who has realized his own error.  What's at issue for the characters in this carefully and minimally drawn story is crucial to their well being, but the reader must exercise some empathy to recognize the importance of the disagreement between the couple, and its resolution.  There's an element of local color here, of Kate Chopin when she was writing deftly executed vignettes but before she was writing the stories for which she is most known.  We learn a lot in these stories about human character and the concerns of small, constrained lives. What Brown's characters experience—old age, the deaths of friends, displacement, isolation, a changing society, bitterness and disappointment—are problems all of us experience. Brown's ability to open up these experiences and to compel us as readers to identity them as our own is a measure of her success as a writer.

Originally published at Blogcritics.

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