Note: A couple of authors in the following volume are friends of ISLF, but rest assured, dear readers, that my review policy still holds. I do not accept free copies or ARCs of any title I review -- this one included.
West Virginia gets a bad rap. People like to portray California as a land of creativity, Florida as the sunshine state, and New England as the cradle of America, but poor West Virginia gets cast as a land of ignorant hicks and inbred hillbillies. Never mind that famed cataract surgeon James Gills and Nobel Laureate John Nash both hail from the state. It's something of a sore spot for me because a branch of my family springs out of West Virginian soil. So I was excited to learn about River Town, a short-story collection set in 19th century Charleston. But the question was whether or not these tales of love and loss and economic struggle would do well by their subject matter.
River Town faces a few problems right off the bat. Anthology readers know that various authors excel at various parts of the writing craft, and a collection penned by multiple scribes usually feels a bit uneven. River Town certainly does, and not only because of variations in style. The structure of the book itself will likely confuse readers who don't come to it with the correct expectations. For my own part, I thought I was picking up a regular old collection of stories and sat blinking at my eReader when Katharine Herndon's "Hayden's Return" seemed to peter out at the moment of greatest tension. Other tales take off in entirely different directions, each with a shared character here or a slightly different setting there. Some seem distinct and independent while others dangle off cliffhangers or appear to be transitional pieces. You get the picture: They're all over the proverbial map. Judged as a compilation of short fiction, the book confuses.
But that's not what River Town is supposed to be.
How best to describe it? Imagine a television drama that unfolds in a single season with each episode being written and directed by someone new. Some of the episodes present an overarching mythology, a macro-story that becomes clearer over a longer period of narrative time. The aforementioned "Hayden's Return" introduces readers to the titular rabble-rouser who has returned home to help his family deal with a mysterious evil that's slowly killing local miners. Much later, G. Cameron Fuller's "Wail" resolves that mystery by showing that the bizarre actions of an ancient wise woman are tied up in a struggle of almost cosmic proportions. In between, other episodes appear that are more atomistic and limited in scope. Some tell of budding love amidst difficult circumstances ("They Hold Down the Dead" by Elizabeth Gaucher) or portray an impoverished teacher reaching across societal taboos to help the less fortunate ("Being True in River Town" by Jane Siers Wright). A pair of stories and a closing interlude give the Rashomon treatment to a desperate steamboat race, using new perspectives to reveal addition truths about the event. Indeed, a retrospective look reveals intricate connections between the various stories. Editor Eric Douglas deserves kudos for his steady hand at the narrative till. Yes, the changes in style and pacing are a problem, and a handful of inconsistencies appear between accounts. But read as a single tale told by multiple people, River Town makes waves.
(Picture: CC 2011 by Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)