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Tidewater blues

The end of a Virginia river and its people, in stories by Pittsboro's Belle Boggs


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It's not until late in Belle Boggs' debut short story collection, Mattaponi Queen, that we learn an interesting fact about the source of the river, about three hours' drive north from the Triangle, that gives the book its title: "The Mat joined the Ta in Spotsylvania to become the Matta, the Po and the Ni connected in Caroline to become the Poni. In Caroline County near Bowling Green they became the Mattaponi," which before emptying into the York, not far from the famous Jamestown settlement, runs through some of colonial America's most historic territory: Tidewater, Virginia, home of Powhatan and Pocahontas.

Belle Boggs recently moved to Pittsboro, but she grew up in the Tidewater region, and most of the stories in Mattaponi Queen, winner of the 2009 Bakeless Prize for fiction, are set there. Like the river, the collection gathers tributaries and gets them to flow together. Along with the landscape, certain characters and objects (like the boat of the title) become familiar as they crop up in multiple stories, and although the book doesn't read like a novel—these are stand-alone stories—Boggs' clear goal is to give a holistic sense of a community that is both provincial and varied, weird yet unchanging, inbred but dissipated. "Ancient history: that's what a lot of this town is," one of her characters muses. "Houses, rented or owned, passed down from father to son and mother to daughter. Silverware older than the people eating with it." (That heirloom silverware gets stolen, but its new home is nearby, as if it's sucked back in by the ancestral Tidewater mud.)

There is an Indian reservation by the Mattaponi River, and so three races—white, black and native—are well represented in the area and in Mattaponi Queen. One of Boggs' best-drawn characters is an Indian named Skinny, who is the protagonist of "It Won't Be Long" and plays an important role in the book's longest story, "Homecoming." An aging (indeed, dying) alcoholic auto mechanic, Skinny is a disjointed figure: Although he lives on the reservation, he isn't well connected to his Indian roots, his wife has long since left him and he rarely sees his grown children. He likes to watch cooking shows on television and is a self-taught home gourmand. Generous and shaggy (and not at all skinny), he's a guy you come to feel sympathetic toward as you get to know him better.

Skinny is a good example of the sort of character Boggs likes to work with. Even though many of the people in Mattaponi Queen are natives of the area, most of them are people living estranged or displaced lives, uneasy with themselves and with their too-familiar surroundings. "Everything in this town ... used to be something more interesting than what it is as now," thinks Loretta, a long-suffering private nurse and driver for a rich old white lady. She longs to buy the titular Mattaponi Queen, an old boat, even though she doesn't know where she'll sail away to.

It is not really a surprise that a book so narrowly focused on a singular place would abound with characters living so disaffectedly in it; many are teenagers and young adults forced into situations where they have to be more responsible than the adults around them. (The classic linchpin of this arrangement is alcoholism, which shadows the book.) Lots of writers are misfits from childhood and often feel more connected to the land and architecture than the people of their hometowns. As Boggs points out in an author's note, the book's last words are "Good riddance," just after a termagant old woman dies.

Yet despite the old Southern setting and its potential for Faulknerian Gothic, Boggs' stories tread lightly, her prose voice delicate and sensitive—occasionally to a fault—and they usually take time to note the topography, the seasonal flux, the smells and sounds.

The careful observance and description of local detail (visually reproduced by the book's cover, a collage of flora and oyster shells and rusty old things) is quite loving, as is Boggs' attitude toward her characters, who, like the land around them, are given a generous back story. The stories move unhurriedly, collecting elements of plot, history and description as they go and then seeing where they'll all lead. Some of Mattaponi Queen feels more like sketches than full-fledged stories, and there are plenty of opportunities to tune out while reading the book, but Boggs' storytelling habits seem not so much the result of purposelessness as a need to gather and preserve images and memories, even if it means sometimes overfilling her narratives.

Boggs can, perhaps, be forgiven for that tendency. Near the same moment when we learn the source of the Mattaponi's name, we also find out that "[n]ow they wanted to dam it up, to make a reservoir feeding the new white plastic developments in Newport News and Hampton Roads." That death blow, she writes, "approach[es] like a snakehead." Boggs may bid good riddance to the Mattaponi, but her book rescues some of its riparian life before progress drowns it.


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