Today's Menu: Mattaponi Queen, by Belle Boggs
Thinking: Another stunning collection of contemporary stories. Hallelujah!
I discovered this book through an essay Boggs has in the most recent issue of Orion Magazine. “The Art of Waiting” moved me so much I went on one of those writer-hunts I sometimes go on. And found: Mattaponi Queen, a collection of interwoven short stories that take place along the banks of the Mattaponi River in King William County, Virginia.
Susan Straight wrote about the collection: “The setting was so perfectly rendered that I saw the river, the dirt roads, the woods, and most of all, the way each character moved in that landscape. The interwoven stories remind me of Annie Proulx crossed with Ernest Gaines—the dry humor, the understatement, and the wonderful dialogue that sounds as if I’m hearing it while sitting on a folding chair in a yard.”
I agree with all of that, but what floored me from the get-go is how Boggs manages to avoid the multitudinous pitfalls of stereotype so easy to fall into (or back on) when writing about rural America. Her tender stories contain plenty of hard edges (alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty) but she doesn't rely on those edges to make her characters or her stories come alive. The stories don't depend on tragedy for their dramatic flair. They are written from the perspective of whites, blacks and Native Americans, and though it would be easy to make the stories about race, Boggs masterfully weaves that diversity into the fabric of her landscape without making it a centerpiece (as I imagine it is not, in the lives she is writing about). There is no incest in this collection. No physical abuse. No car accidents.
What there is? Vividly rendered houses, Indian reservations, back roads, antique river boats, city streets, and yes, the ever-flowing river itself. Characters that feel so real and original I wake in the morning feeling I've known them. Arresting sentences. Honest tales of those who have left and those who have never left and those who have returned. Tales of dreams and thwarted dreams. And best of all? Love. The fabric of the book is soaked in it. The characters feel it and you feel it and you know Boggs feels it. You don’t have to question, while reading, why she is writing about the lives or the place she is. It’s clear she’s seen things, and clear she cares.