Sixty-three contemporary writers from West Virginia provide a sense of place through its people.
Editors Long (Out of Peel Tree, 2014) and Van Gundy (A Life Above Water, 2007) bring together fiction and poetry to show a region as diverse as the people who make it up. The characters in these pages struggle to understand and to be understood. There is the Hindu grandfather in Rahul Mehta’s “Quarantine.” He is a stubborn man who insists on tradition and frustrates his grandson, but—like his grandson—he does not feel like home is where he belongs. In Jonathan Corcoran’s “Through the Still Hours,” a now-loveless gay couple celebrates their fourth anniversary with a crowd of straight friends. It's a sad, lonely affair for the protagonist. “This means a lot to them,” his partner stresses. “We’re the only gay couple they know.” Voices of children and the elderly feature prominently. The child of Scott McClanahan’s “Picking Blackberries” is rendered in beautiful, realistic detail, from the hat he longs for and then resents to the Velcro tennis shoes that he believes give him special speed. An excerpt from Jayne Anne Phillips' novel Lark and Termite is particularly memorable. A young girl takes care of her nonverbal half brother, a boy nicknamed Termite. It is clear she will be his caretaker all her life. She can see him as others do, but she knows him much more deeply. “I think he’s in himself like a termite’s in a wall,” she says. Similarly, in Jessie van Eerden’s “Edna,” the pain of the eponymous elderly protagonist is only one part of her dynamic character. Nostalgia is a frequent theme in many of the poems and stories, including those of Ron Houchin, Cheryl Denise, and Kent Shaw. The natural world plays a role too, as in Matthew Neill Null’s “Natural Resources,” which traces the patterns of the bear population and the human causes for it. Even characters with jobs more commonly associated with Appalachia are seen with a depth that makes them new. Maiden Estep, the miner in Sheryl Monks’ “Robbing Pillars,” suffers a loss that is almost magical in its abruptness.
Not every piece in this thick volume is noteworthy, but those that are shine, and the cumulative effect is powerful. A collage of a region that is greater than the sum of its parts.