Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Nothing with Strings, by Bailey White

Thanksgiving is not usually a day on which I'm listening to the radio, so I was unaware that Bailey White stories have been a mainstay on All Things Considered's Thanksgiving broadcast. In fact, I knew little about Bailey White, other than that she is a Southern writer. So when I downloaded this audio book containing 13 of her Thanksgiving-day stories, I had no idea what to expect.

The stories certainly have a Southern flavor--eccentric characters, Southern expressions, and references to Southern cuisine, traditions, foliage, etc. pepper the stories. But they have little to do with Thanksgiving and tend to end with unexpected twists that are not necessarily of the "sweet down-home" variety (both of these facts apparently irked a number of readers who reviewed the collection on Amazon). Some also have a development that might be supernatural--but might not be; readers/listeners have to decide for themselves. An example: In the first story, "Meals-on-Wheels," morning glories have gotten into Ida's house and are growing across the walls. The Meals-on-Wheels "girl" urges them to cut them down at the window where they have entered the house. But Ida is less concerned about the morning glories than about the fact that she sometimes finds Richard Nixon in the kitchen cooking eggs when she gets up in the morning; she realizes this is unusual enough that she shouldn't tell anyone else about it for fear of ending up in the Shady Rest Nursing Home. Then a new Meals-on-Wheels girl starts delivering her food, and she changes Ida's life. She loves the morning glories, replaces the jello in the meals with home-baked cake, and takes Ida on a picnic. Finally, the old Meals-on-Wheels girl returns and tells Ida there was no new girl who replaced her. So who was the girl? Was it a supernatural visitor, a figment of Ida's slightly addled mind, or a real person unknown to the old Meals-on-Wheels girl? We have to decide for ourselves.

Like "Meals-on-Wheels," a number of the stories have to do with aging and dementia. Others have to do with loss in different forms--loss of a mother, of the free-wheeling lifestyle of one's youth, of the small-town traditions that disappear when "development" comes to a community. These themes are universal, and I found White's treatment of them well worth the time I invested in listening. Note that the audio version of the book is narrated by Lorna Raver rather than by White herself, another fact that annoyed some Amazon reviewers. While Raver's Southern accent seemed slightly exaggerated, I didn't mind her narration.

Recommended, with awareness that these are not feel-good holiday stories.

Favorite passage:
The Meals-on-Wheels girl said, "You couldn't pay me to eat an egg cooked by Richard Nixon." [Okay, it's not a particularly graceful sentence or beautiful sentiment, but it matches my feelings about Richard Nixon exactly.]

Behind them Lily sat on the porch floor, playing with the reflection of the Chautauqua building in her mind. When the breeze died down and the reflection in the lake grew clear and distinct, she could squint her eyes and make herself believe that the reflection was the building itself. This seemed to make anything possible, and she went on to imagine ladies in white lawn and gentlemen in bowler hats strolling in the lake yard, a drunken monkey on a red leash, a blue mule, and a mysterious stranger with a black mustache. Then a little breeze would stir up the ripples, the reflection would slur, and everything would shift back to real. her mind would clamp down again, and there would be the banjo player on that cold, cold night, nudging her down the walkway and saying, "How could have you have thought it was that important?"  [This, I think, gives a real sense of White's writing and attitude.]

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