Mary Dean Cason and I were students together in Dr. Barbara Croft’s Short Story Writing Class at the University of Chicago over 10 years ago. The class was full of many good writers with a vast array of talent. (I thanked each one, by name, in Volume I of “Ghostly Tales of Route 66.”) There were retired newspaper writers and editors, the chief attorney for Kraft Foods (who has gone on to write a children’s story), retired educators like me, and a host of others.
Mary Dean’s stories were always among the best. We once stopped for a drink at the nearby Sheraton, discussing our works-in-progress, and I wished that Mary Dean lived closer to the city, because I knew no one in Chicago.
After a few classes, Dr. Croft took me out in the hall and quietly said, “You already know all this stuff. Just go home and write.” It is true that, during my college years on campus at the University of Iowa, I had been exposed to Kurt Vonnegut (interviewed him when I was 18), John Irving (classmate), Nelson Algren and David Morrell, but I was usually auditing those Writers’ Workshop classes with a 19 Journalism number, not the 8 English number. Back then, a callow youth, I really didn’t have anything worth making up a story about, let alone sharing any of the life experiences that give Mary Dean’s stories depth.
I’m not sure Dr. Croft was right. It is true that by 2004 I had been teaching other people to write for 33 years at levels from 7th grade up, including at six Iowa or Illinois colleges. But I had never “written long” (short stories, novels), although I’d read a lot of great literature as an English major with no minor. [My college major was Journalism until my junior year, when I switched to English and Education, finishing my Master’s at Western Illinois University.]
After our one class together, Mary Dean went on to study in the University of Chicago’s certificate program and many others, winning awards for her work.
Perhaps that is what I should have done, but I just went home and started making myself sit down and write.
In other words, I followed Dr. Croft’s advice, although I did take one more class on Novel Writing from Patrick Somerville, who is now writing for “The Bridge” on television and previously wrote for “24.” Twenty-two books or e-books later—3 within the past week— I’ve just read Mary Dean’s debut short story collection, “What Solomon Saw” and enjoyed her stories immensely, just as I did 10 years ago in Dr. Croft’s class.
So, we’ve both been very busy, but in different ways working towards the same goal: literary excellence. Hopefully, readers will agree that we’ve each come a long way, (Baby).
Mary Dean has drawn on her North Carolina roots to gather eleven short stories into a debut collection entitled, “What Solomon Saw.”
Solomon, for those curious about the title, is a 300-year-old willow oak in North Carolina. At least 5 or 6 of these stories Solomon could not have “seen” because those stories are set in other parts of the world (“Girl Interrupted at Her Music,” “A Split in the Seam,” “Avalanche,” “The Penitent” and “A Whore for Thursday.”) I hope the critics that savaged my “Laughing through Life” reminiscences of my days as a young wife and mother, moving through time up to the present day, don’t dissect and criticize Mary Dean’s decision to write stories about places and times other than the North Carolina of her youth. Every writer should be able to write across a broad spectrum, and confining Mary Dean Cason’s observations to just her North Carolina roots, while tempting, would put her in the same category as Nora Steele of “Girl Interrupted at her Music” who says, “I can’t be a prisoner. None of us can.” I have fought against this tendency to pigeon-hole writers for a decade, and I shall continue to fight the good fight, both for Mary Dean Cason and for myself.
Write what you want and what you feel and what you feel like writing and to thine own self you will be true (to roughly rip off Shakespeare).
But I will say that those stories that draw on her Southern roots and the South of Broad that Pat Conroy wrote about were the best in the book, for me. I’ll be waiting for her North Carolina-influenced novel, which is sure to follow. What I like best about Mary Dean’s stories is that SOMETHING HAPPENS. None of these wimpy plots involving a bunch of people going on a picnic or 300 pages describing a bicycle leaning against an ivy-colored wall (both actual instances whose authors shall remain nameless). SOMETHING HAPPENS!
And the”something” is interesting and well-described and leaves you wanting to know more about the characters.
Maybe it’s just because, a native Iowan, I know nothing of pluff mud (“Rich As Pluff Mud”) , but I look forward to Mary Dean’s taking the many Southern characters she has sketched so well in these short stories and watching her weave them into the tapestry of a novel. It seems as though characters like Jack Tree and Libby Gordon and Mildred Tatum are assembling themselves and crying out for novel-length treatment.
But I digress. (Which, if I’m being honest, I’m often criticized for, also).
Let’s examine the first story in the book, “What Solomon Saw,” in which our narrator is Martha Johnson, the younger sister of 13-year-old Lester Johnson, who, as the author tells us in the opening line, is eager to get a gander at Libby Tatum’s breasts. (“More than anything in the world, Lester Johnston wanted to see Libby Tatum’s titties.”)
I hate it when reviewers give away my entire plot in a review, especially if it has an unexpected ending, so I’ll simply say that this one has echoes of the novel “The Help.” It is set against the backdrop of the sixties with lines like, “For many things were changing: coloreds to black, flat chests to bosoms, a Catholic was running for president and my brother was becoming somebody I didn’t recognize.”
As the plot makes clear, “Everything changes. It’s the only thing you can count on.” This story provides the cover image and the first line, alone, will suck you in.
Story #2: The Army Jacket
Jack Tree’s place—a restaurant—figures prominently in this one with Mary Alice, the cook and Jasper Lee Pinewood (“Piney”), her ne’er-do-well jealous husband, thwarted by Walter Johnston, who happens to be in the restaurant with his family at a key juncture. The first of more than one tale of a woman who is at the mercy of a bully but is brave enough to stand up to that bully. Beleaguered womenfolk and dealing with grief resonate in these eleven stories, in various oft-repeated ways.
Story #3: Oh! Canada
Although this one departs from the rich Southern tales and takes us into the world of organized crime and one couple’s attempts to escape it, there are some great lines:
“I’m ready to leave your family behind…and I ain’t gonna’ miss mine either.”
“…he had a smile that had been bruised and battered but wanted bad to beat, even if it had to bleed its way back to life.”
“You rub up against a guy and he thinks you’re just dying to do him.”
(From Loretta, one of the two main characters): “I can’t fuck you, ‘cause it’s against my morals for a first date. And I won’t blow you, ‘cause it’s dirty, but I’ll pull you off and you can touch me anywhere you like. OK?”
“…was it that long ago that she felt free?” (Loretta, thinking back to when she was eight.)
Story #4: “Rich as Pluff Mud”
Some rich, well-drawn characters here, best represented by Elizabeth Tatum Gordon, who is infertile and yearns for the ability to bear children that Addison McMahon, who married money, takes for granted. “The fact that Addison McMahon could do that very thing so easily, an announce it so casually, and be so annoyed by it, burned a hole in Libby like a cigarette that stayed lit until it came out the other side of your hand.”
Libby, who is thin and gorgeous, yearns for children: “Month after month, there was a bloody reminder of the barren wasteland she called her body.” Somewhat depressed about this and over-served, Libby behaves badly at a party. (“Libby, you’re a sin just waiting to happen.” “The crowd was growing and Libby was well aware she was the show.”)
Addison, the plump pregnant hostess, takes umbrage at her guest’s behavior. “Addison didn’t have an ounce of humor, but she had tons of bitter.” As the story notes, “A strategic whisper” and the country club you thought you were a member in good standing with will cut you dead. (Boy, will they ever! Don’t run afoul of the Queen Bee(s) of your local social circle!)
Another story set in Charleston, referencing class distinctions, new money versus old, and Gullah, the old slave language and culture of the area.
Story #5: “Speckled Bird”
Yet another abused woman makes an appearance: Bailey Rose Abernathy Dunham of Carolina Preserve (an area between Asheville and Greenville.) Bailey’s plight reminded me of a supposedly true story I read about the matriarch Rose Kennedy, who showed up at her father’s doorstep as a newlywed, miserably unhappy with her marriage to the philandering Joseph P. Kennedy in their early years as a couple, and was promptly sent home and told to do her duty as his wife.
The description of a husband who is “mean as a snake one minute, talks sugar and rose petals the next—” brings the disclosure that Bailey Rose “learned to be just like mercury—fast and slipping out and hiding the who of me.”
Another great line: “Nothing says loving like a 9-millimeter Italian handgun.”
Buy the book to find out if that handgun is used and, if so, by whom and on whom or what.
Story #6: “Girl Interrupted at her Music”
Based on the 17th century Vermeer painting, this one leaves the Southland and journeys to Scarsdale, telling the tale of Nora Kanter Steele and Barbara Steele, her mother-in-law, who have a basic disagreement about what should happen to some frozen embryos after Nora’s beloved husband (and Barbara’s son), David Steele, dies on 9/11 in the Twin Towers.
Nora goes through some understandably rough times dealing with her grief, but “Nora knew that she had separated from the world, but she had not broken from herself.” Nora must stand up to her overbearing in-laws, telling Barbara, “I can’t be a prisoner. None of us can,” and is less-than-admiring of Barbara’s “take charge” attitude, saying, “I wasn’t so sure I could handle your handling it.”
What will become of the children frozen for a future family, now that David is gone?
Story #7: “A Split in the Seam”
I’ve written a lot of ghost stores over the course of collecting “Ghostly Tales of Route 66.” The project has grown ever more diverse with 3 paperback volumes and soon-to-be seven e-books of same.
This story takes on spirits visiting an adult child who may need their emotional support (Amelia and Thad visit Tess Delaney). It was interesting to me as (yet another) way of describing what “spirits” and “ghosts” may be—if they exist. Quote: “Leak through—like a seam in a curtain that kind of—splits sometimes.”(*Full disclosure: I’m not one of those people with tons of equipment taking pictures of orbs and ranting; I was hired to collect the stories and I tried to make them interesting and remain non-judgmental about the existence or non-existence of ghosts and spirits.)
Story #8: “Avalanche”
Another story of love and loss, this time involving Olivia and Jonathan and Ben and Peter and Cynthia Murphy. A recurring theme is loss and grief. “We revel quickly in joy, but grief, she was discovering, takes its time before it crushes.” A nicely turned surprise ending of sorts after the death of Olivia’s husband in an avalanche.
Story #9: “Liar, Liar”
Some semi-comic moments in this tale of a woman (Louise Wilson, wife of Charlie Wilson) who just can’t tell the truth. She wants to have a face-lift and does so, arranging everything so there will be secrecy, only to learn while in recovery that her mother has suddenly died.
Learning this news while black-and-blue, totally unprepared to be seen in public, Louise says: “I had a funeral in front of me. I was just wishing it were mine.” This story made me think of an episode of “Sex & the City” where Samantha unwisely had a facial peel right before a big social event.
Story #10: “The Penitent”
Set against the backdrop of the World War, a nurse (Catherine) goes off to help at the front, leaving behind her severely wounded soldier husband. “She knew that obligation and comfort were a poor substitute for passion.” There, Catherine meets someone she could madly and passionately love, against the dramatic backdrop of the war in progress.
But there are complications. (Aren’t there always?)
Story #11: “A Whore for Thursday”
Frank Pella dies and his widow, Gina, learns some unsettling facts about how, where and why her loving accountant husband, Frank, was spending his Thursdays for the past 30 years.
I think you will like this debut collection which I heartily recommend, enjoying the imagery and lyrical turns of phrase, with enough plot twists to surprise and entertain.
Now we’ll all be waiting for the North Carolina novel.