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Tom Chaney: R731: The Sacred Power of Stories

Tom Chaney, Of Writers and Their Books. R731 The Sacred Power of Stories first appeared in the Hart County News-Herald on Sunday, 23 April 2006
The next earlier Tom Chaney Of Writers and Their Books column, R730: John Ed Pearce

'Tis said that an expert is a person at least fifty miles from home. I try to make it my practice to stay beyond that limit. I look on the fifty mile limit for story telling for a fee much as depression era bootleggers honored the three mile offshore limit in the rum running days of prohibition.

A couple of weeks ago, I skirted the near edge of that free zone in Columbia at Lindsey Wilson College. Phil Hanna, poor soul, in an effort to get himself permanently barred from the college lecture committee, asked me to come and tell stories to the assembled throngs one lovely spring day.

The afternoon went well. I had asked that the audience be frisked for rotten fruit. My stories drew smiles, and a polite chuckle or two. Not too many folks finished listening before I finished talking. And the escort provided to the city limits had no visible fire arms or vats of tar with feathers.

I bring all this up because I was given a gift by one member of the audience which I am savoring and will treasure for a right smart while.

As I attempted to make my escape from those hallowed halls, Professor Morris Grubbs of the English Department asked me to wait a minute. While I felt the delay might just have been a ploy to delay matters while the posse comitatus was formed, that proved not to be the case.

The good professor returned with a delightful tome which he had edited in 2001. Published by the University Press of Kentucky, it is yclept Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories.

Grubbs notes in his preface that this book is a descendant of Hollis Summers' 1954 Kentucky Stories, featuring stories published roughly between 1891 and 1951. Backing up just a bit to get a running start, Grubbs selected stories by forty writers published between 1945 and the end of the century -- 2000.

"The word Home in the this book's title is meant literally and metaphorically: it is the homeplace, the homeland, the familiar, the past, the longed-for future, family, security, felicity, Heaven . . . . This cycle -- home, beyond, and back again -- is the basis for this collection," Grubbs says.

Home and Beyond opens with what I consider to be the benchmark for Kentucky stories -- Robert Penn Warren's "Blackberry Winter." A host of old friends peek out at the reader: James Still, Janice Holt Giles, A.B. Guthrie, Jr., Elizabeth Hardwick. and a few others in the 1945-1960 section.

The next section covers two decades from 1960-1980. There one is ambushed by the likes of Hollis Summers, Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, and Walter Tevis.

The crescendo of the century's last twenty years features the strong voices of Bobbie Ann Mason, Sena Jeter Naslund, Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, Guy Davenport, and others.

Charles E. May wrote the Afterword. After detailing his long connection with Kentucky fiction, he states the premise that the short story is not just a finger exercise for the writer who wishes to be a novelist. May observes that the short story is "a fundamental, elementary form." He cites Nadine Gordimer who has argued that "the novel cannot convey the true quality of modern human life . . . . [Short story writers] see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of -- the present moment."

Thus, the short stories in this collection are not just about ordinary reality, "but the transformation of experience, which we too often take for granted, into mystery."

Hence, the final scene in "Blackberry Winter" as the tramp leaves. The boy wishes to follow, but the tramp threatens him, "Don't you follow . . . . I'll kill you. That was what he said, for me not to follow him. But I did follow him all the years."

Stories centered in a place run the risk of being merely "local color," May affirms. But the problem here is not in the material, rather in the treatment.

The Kentucky stories in Home and Beyond sparkle with variety and skill which provides us with a transforming luminescence.

Let me admit that I haven't read them all. That may take a year or more. I have dipped to spend time with some old friends, to meet a couple of new. I aim to savor the sacred power of stories as one savors a glass of great wine -- not rush to eat the ice cream before it melts.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney
The Bookstore

This story was posted on 2011-10-09 09:42:25
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