By Cary Holladay
LSU Press, $23 softcover
This collection of stories is really a novel in nine short stories, each linked to the next sequentially in time, the passage of which is marked by the Faulkner-like change of voice from story to story. But one point of view dominates the book: Nelle Fenton, pretty and headstrong daughter of a northern family that settles in the horse country of northern Virginia.
First things first, the first “story,” “The Bridge,” begins during the Civil War when most of the men are off at war fighting for Southern independence. There’s a bridge to be guarded, so Henry Fenton, local farmer and mill owner, assembles a motley crew of guards to make sure the vital crossing isn’t destroyed by marauding troops of either side.
Henry is nursing his dying wife, Mary Jane. Among his guards is Bonnie Hazlitt, mother of an illegitimate baby whose father went off to war and never came back.
Bonnie is a simple woman who believes in signs, and she sees one while on guard duty.
“One day she saw a white squirrel. It made her happy, that flash of exotic fur high in a tree along the river, something natural that yet did not belong. She was glad for the war, for it meant there were fewer men and boys to hunt the squirrel, to kill it. ‘Mens is so cruel,’ said the Negro midwife who delivered Bonnie’s baby.”
Bonnie knows Mary Jane is dying and entertains a faint hope of being the next Mrs. Henry Fenton. Henry won Mary Jane’s hand over competition from his own brother, Joe, whose story is also told in “The Bridge.”
Joe serves in the war, survives, moves away to Memphis and lives to be 98. But he is not longer important to the plot when Mary Jane dies. Bonnie is still there, but she does not get Henry, another woman does that and bears his children, whom Bonnie babysits. She lands a job as a nanny to Thadeus Scott when the Northerner and his family move to Virginia.
One of the children is Nelle, a horse lover and willful young girl who immediately impresses Bonnie as the wrong sort. Nelle’s mother drinks and is as intractable as her daughter. A drunken cart accident costs the mother one eye.
Bonnie witnesses the accident. So does Nelle. She warns Henry about the Scotts.
“It’s not just because they’re Yankees. She’s a drunk and he can’t control her. And the middle children hate each other, little girl kicked the daylights out of that boy. That Nelle, she’s the oddest of them all. Wanted to see her mother’s gouged-out eye! Pressed her face up close. Would you want to see your Ma with her eye put out? It’s unnatural.”
Henry calms her, but Bonnie gives him one last warning.
“That’s one scary little girl. Don’t let your boy Richard go near her, Henry. She’ll be after him one day.”
Of course she’s right, and in the very next story, “Seven Sons,” Nelle takes over the narration which she will maintain through the birth of seven sons, affairs, accident and many, many horses.
This is the annual “Yellow Shoes” fiction book from LSU Press, and they never miss with their picks. This is a very good book, with some lovely prose and interesting characters doing unusual things. There are deaths. There are poignant moments. There are fights. There are horses, lots of horses.
Other characters occasionally are heard from, but the thing is, it’s Nelle’s book, and Bonnie was right about Nelle. It’d be nice to have a little more Bonnie and a little less Nelle. You’d love to hear more about that white squirrel.