Kinder, winner of the first Willa Cather Fiction Prize, offers 15 stories about growing up female and surviving adulthood as a proto-feminist in the bootheel of Missouri—stories that are sharply textured with family quarrels and homage to bluegrass and gospel music. Many of the pieces concern Cora Leban, a mother, musician, and independent spirit who grows up (and out of) a community where some women—Anna, for instance—``did not know how she had lived without church.'' Music is the only redemption; love fails to suture pain or provide much in the way of relief. In the book's early stories, the narrow, judgmental voice of the community makes itself heard- -especially in ``Craryville Box''—and a range of voices dramatize family conflicts and a shifting balance of power in which women hold their own—against a rigid and failing husband in the title story, against a son who takes after the father who deserted him in ``Bloodlines.'' These early stories also establish the down-and-out texture of life in Missouri's bootheel—using the outhouse, hunting for leeches, learning not to trust. In ``Cora's Room,'' Cora returns home to her bitter mother Oida to find the separation between them too great to bridge; in ``The Prowler,'' Cora, slowly losing her hearing, borrows a .38 from her ex-husband, a cop ``on the rape detail,'' and waits, refusing to draw her drapes, for a Peeping Tom. In ``Cora's Letter,'' the last summing-up story, Cora writes to her mother about a lover who was arrested for murder and about ``the kind of thing mothers and daughters don't talk about.'' At their best, these hardscrabble stories—grounded in bleakness but with moments of beauty—have a delicacy of vision and acute sense of place reminiscent of Olga Masters.
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