Mississippi’s own modern-day master of the short story, Ellen Gilchrist, is back in true form. With Acts of God, her first book in eight years, and her 12th book of short stories overall, Gilchrist again pleases those who love her wit, her wry sensibility, and her keen eye for detail.
Gilchrist, at 79, has built a long career as a successful writer, and she shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. I was lucky enough to attend a book signing and reading she did this past week in New Orleans at the independent bookstore Garden District Books.
In front of a standing-room-only crowd, Gilchrist read one of the stories from her new collection, bringing back to life the beloved recurring character of Rhoda Manning. Set up as a series of letters between Rhoda, her lawyer, and her neighbors over some noisy dogs next door, the escalation of a trivial situation in Gilchrist’s capable hands was so funny she had us laughing the entire time. The pleasure of hearing a writer like Gilchrist read her own work can’t be overstated. And she herself said that when she writes something funny, she still thinks it’s funny long after, no matter how many times she’s read her own work.
As usual for the National Book Award-winning Gilchrist, she’s filled Acts of God’s ten stories with characters from Mississippi and she’s set a lot of the action either in Mississippi or New Orleans. She herself still keeps a condo on the beach in Ocean Springs, although she primarily lives, as she has for years, in Fayetteville, Ark.
The “acts of god” referred to in the book’s title do take the form of natural disasters in many of these stories, but she also stretches the meaning to include, more simply, things that her characters cannot control (like Rhoda and those pesky dogs next door). Hurricane Katrina gets its due here in more than one story, as does a tornado in Arkansas. But instead of being beaten by these external forces, her characters repeatedly find themselves learning how strong they can really be, and figuring out what matters most in life and what doesn’t. All of this sounds like heavy stuff, and it is, but somehow Gilchrist still manages to find the lightness here and make us laugh.
Asked after she was done reading how she felt about writing for all these many years and where she found inspiration, she said, without missing a beat, “Y’all just keep doing all these crazy things and I just keep writing about it.”
— LouAnn Lofton, firstname.lastname@example.org