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Ellen Gilchrist’s “Acts of God” and the New South: Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana

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If you like a little grit (or GRITS*) with your holiday cheer, spend some time with these stories.

You won’t see Christmas mentioned even once, but you will head out to your next holiday event with a feeling of “…good will toward men.” And women.

*GRITS=Girls raised in the south (to become ladies)

*grits: A dish make from ground hominy (the inside of the corn kernel) served with salt and lots of butter.


A balanced southern breakfast: chicken and waffles + grits.


Quick Read

Puddle Jumper

The name “Ellen Gilchrist” seems familiar to me, but I’m pretty certain I’ve never read anything of hers before, but I ran across this book somewhere, and gave it a go.

 

I mean, I got the book from the library, but who knows where I heard of it.

 

This collection of short stories begins with stories set in the early 21st century and moves roughly (although not exactly) backwards in time, more or less, to the beginning of the 20th century.  In every story, there is some sort of “Act of God”: often natural disasters, sometimes disasters more personal.  Hurricane Katrina makes an appearance as does the shutdown of Heathrow in 2006. The focus of the stories, especially those featuring major disasters, are not usually those affected the most. Instead, they are the peripheral players…at times the characters are significantly affected by the disaster, sometimes marginally so, but they are all affected somehow. 

In these stories, you may be surprised at what is cowardice and what is bravery, or you may have to think about it for a while. 

For the most part, you will like the characters, especially the female characters.  It is like a more nuanced version of Steel Magnolias or possibly Designing Woman, and I love both Steel Magnolias and Designing Women.  Just saying. 

If you really want to have fun with this book, after reading the stories through just to enjoy the stories, you can go back through them and try to sort out how the characters are related.  I don’t think they are all related to each other, but then again, in the South, you never know.  An example of how interconnected Southerners are is scene in one of the later stories where the third cousins are hanging out.  In the South, we know our third cousins, and figuring out all the ways you are connected with a person, let alone a family, can take a while. So it stands to reason  that the same characters (and their relatives) would pop up unexpectedly in different stories.

Apparently the same characters and their relatives pop up across Gilchrist’s books, so keep and eye out. 

The stories take about 30 minutes each to read, but they are stand alone and do well if you have long gaps in your reading opportunities.

More from The Lois Level:

Why you should read short stories

Canadian short story writer Alice Munro

Michigan (USA) short story writer Bonnie Jo Campbell


Other short story collections by Ellen Gilchrist to try

This 1984 collection of short stories won the National Book Award.

Now that’s a title any Southerner can love!

This connected novella (short novel) and short story collection looks like a lot of fun. Reading a story in this format is good if your opportunities to read are rare; there will already be gaps in the story so you don’t need to remember everything.

If you want some actual Christmas in your Christmas spirit, enjoy this clip featuring the lights of Downtown Natchitoches, Lousisiana, which is where the Christmas festival scenes in Steel Magnolias were filmed.

And have little giggle at this Christmas scene from the classic TV show Designing Women, which is set in Atlanta, Georgia. This scene will also help you if you need to properly imagine the way Southerners talk.

 

When I think of southern writers, I think of Southern Gothic.

Here is the definition from Merriam Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature (the definition of gothic is better than the one of Southern Gothic):


Ellen Gilchrist’s stories, at least those in Acts of God, strike me as post-gothic. Thankfully, I think the South has emerged as a better place since we have all gotten our heads straight (or at least more so) on certain issues and managed (I hope) to lay the Confederacy in its grave, where it belongs. At any rate, Ellen Gilchrist actually studied with Eudora Welty, so I’ve included some of her works, along with those of Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, that are good women writers to start with if you want to read more (I’ll save the men for another post).

I’ve also included a couple of Alice Walker’s collections that I enjoy, to offer a balanced perspective. I don’t think she is considered Southern Gothic, strictly speaking, but I like her short stories. Alice Walker has written much more than The Color Purple, and her short stories depict women with whom I for one, can better identify with.

Published in 1941:

Published in 1946, but set in the 1920’s:

You might have read the title story of this collection in school:

I studied Wise Blood in a course in “Literature into Film” when I was a doctoral student at the University of Virginia.

When we watched the opening credits of Wise Blood, no one in the class believed those signs are real. ??? They were and still are in Virginia, and everywhere south of there too. It’s all real, y’all.

Carson McCullers has never been a personal favorite of mine, but she is important.

Alice Walker’s short story collections were published in 1973 and 1982, respectively. Since then, Alice Walker has mostly written poetry and novels.

These books are products of the 1970’s Feminist movement although Walker termed the Black women’s movement Womanist.

Quick Read

Free Read

Enjoy this 2017 interview with Ellen Gilchrist in Deep South magazine, but be warned, there are spoilers for a couple of the stories in Acts of God.

Enjoy “Keeping Houses”, a 2008 essay by Ellen Gilchrist published in O, the Oprah magazine.


Cover Photo

Christmas lights in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, which is the setting for some of Gilchrist’s stories.

Cover photo credit: Ben Grogan [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]. Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons