Homegrown

North Carolina has nourished three women writers with recent book releases

| July 25, 2001
In the Triangle, we pride ourselves on our local writers. Every once in a while one of them will do something fabulous and showy, like win the National Book Award or appear on Oprah, and for a time, putting up with heavy traffic and raptor-like developers seems like a small price to pay to live amid all these literary luminaries.

Of course, living in an area so dense with writers means someone is always publishing a first book or a new novel or a collection of stories, which makes it difficult to keep up with it all. Not surprisingly, this spring has brought us at least three new books by local women writers, two you may have heard of, at least one you most certainly should have heard of, and all three of whom you will certainly hear again.

Haven Kimmel's name may sound familiar if you've heard her read her essays on WUNC. Some of those radio pieces appear in Kimmel's first book, A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana, a book in which everybody is a little strange and funny. In this engaging memoir, Kimmel digs up the bones of her youth (figurative and literal--there are a number of animal carcasses here), the banana-seat bikes and paint-by-number art, and lays them out in a way that gives you a feel for the essential weirdness of a late 20th-century small-town American childhood.

Though many people like to sentimentalize childhood, the fact is that most kids live pretty strange lives. It could be argued that Kimmel's childhood was made extra strange because it unfolded in a town (population holding steady at 300 for decades) where everyone ignored the law about the number of animals that could be buried in any given yard, so that "there were so many animals buried in our backyard that every time we planted a tree or rototilled the garden a handful of smooth white bones got churned up into the light." One of Mooreland's lessons for young Zippy was that "headless bodies really do hop around for a couple of seconds"; she learns this after watching a neighbor kill rabbits by stapling their ears to the side of a barn and decapitating them.

But you have to suspect that most of Kimmel's youthful idiosyncrasies are attributable to her up-bringing. Apparently her entire family was odd, but by the end of A Girl Named Zippy, you really love them, and it seems obvious that Kimmel does too. Although there's an entire--albeit short--chapter devoted to a list of everything her dad lost gambling, including his wife's engagement and wedding rings and Zippy's $25 savings bond won in a game of "Guess How Many Pennies Are in This Huge Jar," Bob Jarvis comes off as an excellent father. Writing about her family's frequent and incredibly well-organized camping trips, Kimmel says of her dad, "When he was at the wheel, everyone else could sleep, because he never would." (When you're a kid, this may be the only thing that truly matters.)

A Girl Named Zippy is compulsively readable, but it's also a little exhausting. Around two-thirds of the way through, you begin to wonder where it's all going. The book's events take place roughly between Kimmel's second- and fifth-grade years, but they occur in no particular order. While the book encompasses four or five years of her life, Zippy at age 7 seems much the same as Zippy at age 11. Still, there's so much that's good here, so much that is real and laugh-out-loud funny, so much that is just plain weird in the best possible way, that you would be denying yourself a good thing by not reading this book.

It's quite possible you will hear more about Raleigh writer Brenda Jernigan in the future, because her first novel, Every Good and Perfect Gift, will undoubtedly be a contender for Oprah's Book Club. Like most of Oprah's picks, this book features a posse of strong, courageous women, a slew of lousy men, and plenty of hard times and dire straits. What raises it above Oprah's more mediocre choices is the quality of writing. For long stretches, the story is carried along--and aloft--by Jernigan's prose. What brings it crashing down to earth is a plot that stretches credulity to the breaking point.

The book begins promisingly enough: "As I sat in Sunday school with my crinoline pricking my skin like a holly bush, God revealed herself to me as a woman." The speaker is Maggie Davidson, whose first brush with the divine infuses her with the power to heal a classmate's broken finger. In Canaan, N.C., in the middle of the tobacco fields of East Carolina, receiving the gift of healing is not such a big deal; announcing that God showed herself as a woman, on the other hand, is akin to blasphemy, so Maggie wisely keeps that aspect of her experience to herself.

Every Good and Perfect Gift sets up for Maggie all sorts of interesting questions: How does God work in the world? What if traditional notions of God (male, patriarchal, judgmental) are misinformed? How does this change the nature of a believer's faith and understanding of God? What would you do if God showed up in one of your visions?

And then love walks in the room and everything falls apart?

You'll feel like you got shoved out of one book and into another when Princeton Seminary student Alex Barrons shows up on the scene because he's read about Maggie in Life magazine and wants to interview her for his thesis on "Mystics and Visions." Suddenly Maggie, who up to this point has been dealing with some very interesting questions, turns into a woman who comes undone whenever she sees her crush at the malt shop with another gal.

Of course, Maggie and Alex fall in love, and of course their love is thwarted, mostly by Maggie, who can't--won't--believe someone like Alex would fall in love with someone like her. After Alex is awarded a Fulbright, he begs Maggie to marry him, but she refuses, believing as she does that Alex only wants to marry her to make his well-to-do father mad. And when the Raleigh newspaper reports that God appears to Maggie as a woman, a secret she has only shared with Alex--and with her mother and grandmother (neither of whom would ever tell)--Maggie feels so betrayed she won't even open Alex's letters.

Most readers will be able to guess how this story will end. What you will not be able to predict is the mind-boggling chain of coincidence, happenstance and serendipity that propel the story to its foregone conclusion. Most of the interesting theological questions are dropped, and the rest of the novel concerns itself with bringing the estranged lovers together again.

Good-hearted souls will want to like this book, because Jernigan is in so many regards a talented writer that you want to be on her side. Here's hoping that in her next book she skips the romance and sticks to the point.

Duke University associate professor Elizabeth Cox's new book, Bargains in the Real World, is a collection of 13 stories, the first six of which will take your breath away. There's a plainspoken elegance to each of these stories--a hush--and yet the stories themselves are not muted. Death, loss and violation of one sort or another inform almost every piece. You are lured in by the quiet hum of the language, and left shaken.

Most of the stories, but not all, are about women's lives. Women like Nadine in "The Third of July," who is in the process of leaving her husband of 30 years and moving to an apartment in Mebane, when she comes across a horrible car accident on a country road. Or Jenny, who tells of herself as a young girl living on the grounds of the boarding school where her mother teaches, how she sought comfort and friendship from the black men and women who worked in the school's laundry, and believed the comfort they offered her meant they loved her. Or Sara, in "Land of Goshen," whose retarded son Jesse is home for a visit, almost grown and still wanting to sit in her lap.

There's not an ounce of sentimentality in this collection, and little comfort. Again and again, the reader is given people who do not flinch when confronted by the horrors of this world. Like young Luther in "Old Court," they will shoot off a gun into the middle of the night, even if they are just aiming at nothing but the dark. There are men trying to get into Luther's house, and Luther and his mother will not lie down for it, just as Nadine will not watch a woman die but instead sticks her hand into the bloody mess of her throat and clears it of debris so the woman can breathe.

This collection does contain some pedestrian stories. "Biology," the story of a young woman who is very willingly seduced by a traveling evangelist, manages to avoid the pitfalls of a clichéd situation, but ends on an unconvincing note; "A Sounding Brass," the story of a family whose father is killed in a shooting accident at the beach, never quite takes to the air. But no story here fails completely, and many of them are astounding. This is Elizabeth Cox's first collection of short stories (she has previously published three novels). She clearly knows what she's doing, and does it masterfully. EndBlock

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