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by Belle Boggs

Pub Date: June 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-55597-558-6
Publisher: Graywolf

Boggs’s sure-footed debut collection, winner of the Bakeless Prize for Fiction, is set on and around the Mattaponi Indian reservation in Virginia.

The Mattaponi is formed by the confluence of four small rivers, and the author employs it deftly as a metaphorical merging of working-class folks of every race and ethnicity. She braids the stories together with recurrent characters and locales, but the stories nimbly evade the first-collection pitfall of too much sameness. The recurrent figures include Loretta, the caretaker for a cranky white octogenarian named Cutie. Loretta is biding her time and planning her retirement, which she’ll spend on the small, old-fashioned boat that gives the collection its title, a boat being lovingly rehabbed by a solitary guy named Mitchell, who gave it to his ex-wife as an extravagant present and for whom the boat is now both an emblem of lovelessness and the only thing he has to lavish love on. There’s the school principal, also lonesome, who gets cajoled into holding a Career Day, then is flummoxed because she “had honestly thought their county could produce more careers than four,” by far the most lucrative of these being the ownership of a McDonald’s. Her search for broader horizons leads her first to seek out a musician ex-boyfriend who tours the country’s amusement parks with Patti LaBelle, then back home to a sweet-tempered, travel-loving policeman who becomes her beau. The stories are not heavily plotted, and Boggs doesn’t always find satisfying exits, but even in those that seem to tread closest to cliché, for instance the one about the aging husband who announces that he wants a sex-change operation (“Jonas”), she writes with subtlety, empathy and command, so that every page features small surprises: jolts of recognition, pungent dialogue, keen observations.

Unfussy, understated and richly varied stories—a promising debut.