Wilkinson’s first book is a collection of short stories—perfect for my attention span just now! These stories feature Black women in rural Kentucky, young and old, each with her individual take on the world, her own idea of herself.
In some stories, such as “Tipping the Scales”, we meet women who can’t be bothered by society’s conventions. A big woman, “not sloppy fat, though,” Josephina Childs has “sure had her hands full in the men department most all her life.” All her life she’s been aware of how “the whole town ‘bout tripped over” themselves to find out what was going on with her mother in the house Ethel’s lover build for them. So when Josephina wants children, she goes ahead and has them. I could hardly wait to find out what happens as she charts her own path among the gossiping townsfolk.
A few stories are from a man’s point of view, such as “Mine” in which Joe Scruggs complains about his former girlfriend Racine. She’d left him when she found out he was cheating on her. Now he sees that she has cut the long, straightened hair he’d loved in favor of short natural hair. Worse than that, she’s had breast reduction surgery and “black women do not get their breasts worked on.” The voice is pitch perfect as Joe thinks about what he sees as Racine’s insult to him and about Darlene, the woman he cheated with, now his wife. It’s a strong indictment of a man’s idea of ownership.
Wilkinson’s use of voice carries each of these stories. Without resorting to dialect, she captures the individual rhythms of her characters’ thoughts and speech. In “Mules” she finds just the right voice for a naïve girl, just starting to develop and learning to navigate the complicated and risky world of men. In “Deviled Eggs” Wilkinson gives voice to a young girl who is dragged along when her mother goes to her job as a domestic servant and has a startling lesson in racism from the elderly white woman who thinks she is doing the child a favor. In “Need” we meet three characters in a café, two women embarking on a difficult conversation and their male waiter, each with a distinctive voice.
I’ve been thinking recently about the shape of short stories, how they begin, how they end. The variety of story shapes is this collection is part of what makes it so enticing. Some stories spiral back to their beginning, while others rise to a new understanding. Many for me ended in ways that surprised me, taking a direction I hadn’t expected: Wilkinson displaying the penchant for independence we see in many of her characters. I love being surprised!
In every story, Wilkinson demonstrates the writer’s mantra that the personal is universal. These may be Black women in Appalachia, but I saw myself in each of them. Reading their stories has been a gift, and I look forward to reading more of her work.
Do you like reading short stories? Can you recommend a collection?