A benefit of our shortened attention spans is the re-emergence of the short story. That pleasurable form of fiction, sliced thinner than a novel but at its best equally compelling, for a decade or two languished out of fashion but returns full of ginger.
In Out of the Mountains, Meredith Sue Willis gives her characters the juice of life. Some turn up in more than one story, prompting the pleasure of recognition. Willis writes about people from Appalachia’s West Virginian corner, where she herself comes from, and about people from New York, where she lives now, with a smattering of folks from elsewhere. They’re all alive on the page.
In one of my favorites here, “Pie Knob,” a Jewish New York couple and an Appalachian woman, whom we know from other stories, interact in complicated and intensely human ways, leaving the reader both sad and glad, the way life sometimes does.
Old hurts and ancient wrongs surface at a funeral in “Fellowship of Kindred Minds.” “Nineteen Sixty-Nine” and “Evenings with Dotson” are two ways to tell the same story; one is two pages long and the other 10 pages, but each has its purpose.
“Triangulation,” in structure the most sophisticated of these stories, opens the book, a mistake, I think, as it is unlike the rest. In it Willis tells us more or less what she plans to do. It would be better placed at the end, to let us see where we’ve been.
T.S. Eliot told us that “returning from our exploring” allows us “to see the place for the first time.” I think Willis could not have seen so accurately had she stayed in Appalachia. Eliot didn’t go back to St. Louis, either. What we carry with us comes in focus when we look back from a distance and it’s the looking back, I think, that Eliot had in mind. Grade: A-