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Other Likely Stories Paperback – July 25, 2010
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In some respects, as a male reader, I am unqualified to comment on this book. These stories reveal the creation of a woman's soul and psyche--with emphasis on the woundings that are particular to women.
Perhaps they serve as a travelogue, a guide, for me, a man, to this foreign land. But if a travelogue, this was a most disturbing and intimate journey. So vivid is the writing, at times I felt myself a voyeur, watching scenes of whose intimacy and privacy were not meant for outside eyes.
Set during the Viet Nam war, the lives of these women are informed by the madness of the era. These stories are a clandestine penetration of forbidden territory, where no prisoners are taken and knowing friend from foe is too often impossible.
As in the heart of any darkness, you will not emerge from such shadows unchanged.
I might be the only person in Ireland to have read Debra Leigh Scott’s blistering collection of inter-related short stories, Other Likely Stories. It’s possible. With an estimated 100,000 new works of fiction published each year in the US alone, I believe it is impossible any longer to claim to be abreast of the new releases in even one or two genres — most of us end up not straying too far from the highly publicised, the prize-winners, or the local.
So, to find a new author, and to come away as fulfilled as this, is always a joy.
Leigh Scott is a busy woman: writer, playwright, dramaturge, educator, documentary film-maker and reviewer for the New York Journal of Books. She founded and runs the Hidden River Arts Centre in Philadelphia, PA, and runs the annual Eludia Award for unpublished female writers which, I feel I better admit right now, I was delighted to win in 2014. How else, out of all the millions of books available, did Other Likely Stories end up flopping through my letterbox in County Kildare, Ireland?
So, a book bought purely out of curiosity…. no personal recommendation, no hype, no idle chance of an intriguing cover catching my eye in the corner of a crammed bookstore…pure nosiness.
Nine stories, two hundred pages, gestated over the course of a decade and finally brought together as a whole, Other Likely Stories is tense and involving from the first page. The stories link and weave together spanning the tumultuous two decades from 1955 to 1975 in small-town, southern USA. Sisters, brothers, fathers, grandparents knit and part, adding and subtracting, infusing the pages with love, hatred, abuse and despair. The darkest of themes are evoked; voodoo, incest, rape, neglect, and the book embraces the bleak. Running through, sometimes so faintly as to be a mere suggestion, hides the redeeming quality of sibling-love and the universal sisterhood. Not to suggest that the book divides mankind into black-and-white poles; evil man and saintly woman — far from it, the book is written in finely delineated shades of grey, and some of the most heinous acts are perpetrated by women, but they are very much women in a man’s world.
Set in large part in the desolate, isolated environments of the accommodation provided for the families of soldiers fighting in Vietnam, the women and their children begin a slow journey of self-discovery, “…her Mom used to listen to a blonde lady called Doris Day…now she listened to the College radio and learned how to write for newspapers.” Unfortunately for some, the awakening comes too late to undo the damage wrought upon them, and that they in their turn have inflicted. Stroking the pillow of the departed daughter, and wishing her well, will not suffice to compensate for years of abuse and outright endangerment, “the certainty of my mother’s uncontrollable fury…”. I cried slow, hot tears as the story “A kind of Heaven” drew to a close and at other times during the book.
Scattered throughout the collection we see glimmers of hope, shots at redemption, just enough to allow us never to despair, and, as parents, brothers, sisters drop out of narratives, or are lowered on their final journeys, we have enough optimism to keep us moving forward, to the end, to the act of bravery and self-care which comes in the final pages and allows us to draw a breath and whisper, maybe it’s going to be alright.
The collection is written chronologically, and although each story is strong enough to stand alone, a coherent narrative arc emerges when read from first page to last. I wouldn’t recommend dipping in and out, when the option to read from start to finish exists.
Debra Leigh Scott is soon to publish a novel, Piety Street, set in the crumbling, decadent New Orleans that she evokes so poignantly in the opening story of this collection, and I look forward to it with anticipation.
Orla Mcalinden http://orlamcalindenwrites.wordpress.com
Though each stands on its own, the stories are loosely inter-connected by way of three recurring characters, sisters Rachael and Midgy Meade and their cousin, Marlena Galloway. Whether taking center stage in a story alone or all showing up together, the nine stories that make up the collection explore the lives of the three over a 20 year period between 1955-1975.
Every story in the collection was an enjoyable read, but there were three in particular that stood out to me.
"Memorial Day" takes place over a scant 24 hour period in May of 1973 and finds Rachel, Midgy and Marlena stopping at a campground off the beaten path on the outskirts of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. On their way to meet up with Midgy's vagabond musician boyfriend, the young women are footloose and fancy-free, reveling in the freedom of their adventure. An encounter with an alcohol fueled group of ex-soldiers recently back from Vietnam, however, leads to a life-altering event that forever binds them with a terrible secret.
"A Fire Goeth Before Him" starts out odd, and quickly veers into straight up Southern Gothic. Marlena, freshly married and with a baby on the way, has already named her unborn son Ammon, which means "the hidden." Never the most tightly wrapped to begin with, Marlena believes she has special powers and that Ammon is destined for greatness: "On the day of his birth, there are special forecasts of weather never before seen. Storms of great magnitude are predicted, with sun blazes that will ignite the trees. But this child is born instead, and so the world is saved." We are forced to watch as Marlena slowly descends into a madness driven by her need to "prepare" Ammon, a preparation that you just know can't possibly end well.
"A Kind of Heaven" is, for my money, the most powerful story in the collection. Living in off-post housing outside of Fort Bragg while their father is off in some strange place called Vietnam, twelve year old Rachel and younger sister Midgy have settled into a boring routine of daily existence with their mother. The unexpected arrival of their Grandmother on the doorstep one wintry morning in late 1962 turns the lives of everyone in the Meade home, especially Rachel, on its ear.
Nana Galloway, it seems, has a secret. One she won't share with either Rachel's mother or grandfather, who shows up shortly after Nana Galloway's arrival to bring his wife home, which she refuses. Rachel discovers her Nana's secret, however, and quickly finds herself drawn into a three-way war between her mother, grandmother and grandfather. Slowly Rachel comes to understand that conflict isn't always a bad thing and that often it's the ones we love whom we clash with most aggressively, because of that love.
Other Likely Stories is a wonderful collection of powerfully written stories. The three young women whose lives we watch unfold discover not only who they are and their place in the world, but that they are stronger than they may have thought possible. Tackling such serious topics as incest, rape, and mental illness, author Debra Leigh Scott has nevertheless managed to infuse each story with an underlying sense of strength of character and hope for a better tomorrow.