Ellen Gilchrist returns with fine new stories, unsentimental characters

The forces at work in Ellen Gilchrist’s latest story collection — her first in eight years — are not trifles. Nature. Time. Plain bad luck. And yet her characters remain undaunted. These flinty, practical, God-fearing Southern folk do not hold with complaining.

“Life’s harder than we know it might be when we’re young,” acknowledges the widowed Arkansas First Responder in the National Guard in Collateral. She must leave her teaching job and son to travel to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And yet, faced with the heat and mosquitoes and desperation, she tells herself, “Well, hell, don’t start thinking like a prima donna. This is the job and you are going to do it.”

Author of 22 other books, including the National Book Award-winning story collection Victory Over Japan, Gilchrist excels at telling wonderfully unsentimental, character-driven narratives about the basics. We’re born. We live. Sometimes we have children. We make friends and fret about our families. We work. We die. Along the way, we’re tested, but more often than not we’re up to the task. As the paramedic in High Water notes, “[W]e people are more powerful and quick on our feet than we know.”

The Methodist youth group teens in Miracle in Adkins, Arkansas, who set out to help victims of a killer tornado, find their lives enriched by their experience. What did it feel like? “Like a miracle or like if you hit a ball out of the field in the last inning of a championship game,” one boy says. “It felt like I’d never known what to think before and all of a sudden I knew exactly what to think. ... I don’t want to talk about it too much. I don’t want to lose it all in words.”

Different sorts of natural disaster loom, too. An elderly couple inadvertently left alone sneaks off for a wild ride in Acts of God. In Jumping Off Bridges Into Clean Water, a husband with polio secretly considers taking his life, but his no-nonsense, bossy, beloved wife derails him. In The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath, a woman with multiple sclerosis plans her suicide dry-eyed (“I’ve done what I was here for.”) And yet Gilchrist, as a great a champion of the human spirit as there has ever been, doesn’t let the story end in despair but with a giddy jolt that reminds us that even when we’re gone, life goes on.

The best story of the bunch is the deceptively simple Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, in which three middle-aged women find themselves stuck in Heathrow Airport (one of them is the niece of Anna Hand from Gilchrist’s The Anna Papers; is it ever a joy to see that name again). A terrorist threat has shut down the city and delayed their Italian vacation, but as the women talk and make friends and wait out the long day, they realize it has been enriching in its own way.

Such moments flower in Gilchrist’s hands: Us at our best in the worst of times. “[S]he thought maybe she had lived her whole life to get to be the person that pulled that little girl up into the cockpit and undid her straps and handed her a package of Ritz Crackers with peanut butter,” thinks the National Guard responder of her work in Katrina’s aftermath. And the fearless Gilchrist ends the story with a revelation so stinging and sweet it takes your breath away. Which is, of course, the point: enjoying the parts that make you grin at the joy of it all.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.