Ellen Gilchrist

"I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting with My Daddy & Other Stories"

(Reviewed by Bill Robinson AUG 13, 2002)

"I don't want bad things to happen to my people," author Ellen Gilchrist once said. She was speaking of the numerous characters that populate her over twenty novels and collections of short stories. "Ninety-nine out a hundred letters I get are from psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, nurses," she went on to say. "(They) use my work to help their patients and that makes me happy."

Read excerptGilchrist's short stories are indeed therapeutic. They tell real stories about real people searching-for love, for happiness, for piece of mind, for compassion, for forgiveness. And, they demonstrate that this search can be a laborious process, however, as we are always told, it is the process that is important.

"It's the journey," Traceleen would say. Traceleen is a plus-sixty Creole maid, constant companion of her New Orleans employee, friend, and age-mate, Miss Crystal. In one of the stories, "Light Shining through a Honey Jar," Traceleen has an epiphany when she notices "a streak of gold on the flat black top of the stove. It was a piece of light shining through a jar of honey."

Traceleen and Miss Crystal, Gilchrist familiars, are practitioners of yoga, and they know their Zen. "This is the moment Buddhist monks wait for all their lives," Traceleen thinks. "To watch a piece of light penetrate the darkness of our selfish lives." Many of the stories that Gilchrist tells illuminate and "penetrate the darkness."

Some of the characters in this new collection seem desperate to escape the confinement of sentence, paragraph, and page. Rhoda Manning is one of these. She is a well-established member of the Gilchrist repertory. Rhoda, brash and out-spoken, narrates almost half the stories in the book. Rhoda knows herself, her strengths, her weaknesses, her foibles, and her frailties, and she has come to that knowledge usually the hard way.

In the title story, Rhoda is a five year-old, headstrong little girl who idolizes her father, Big Dudley, himself larger than life, a true force of nature, as several of the later stories will demonstrate.

"I was five and a half years old and I could think and plan as well as I could when I was thirty," the elder Rhonda says, looking back at her child self. "Better," she says, "because I didn't have to waste time wondering if what I was doing was a good idea. If there was something I wanted, I was after it until it was mine. I was incapable of doing what I was told to do no matter how much I wanted someone to like me and think I was nice. Alas, sixty years haven't changed that much, as my failed marriages attest."

Failed marriages are not a topic of the other Rhoda stories. These flash-forward to the 1970s, and primarily concern unsuccessful attempts to control her pot-smoking teenage sons. "Nineteen seventy-four…" she says. "The worse thing you could say to anyone at a cocktail party was 'How are your kids?' It was an epidemic. No family was immune."

Rhoda realizes that her own constant drinking doesn't help the situation, nor do her attempts to come to terms with Big Dudley, the only man she ever really loved. Big Dudley is constantly trying to set things straight. At 60, he moves from New Orleans, "the decadent South," to the pure, clean, open spaces of Wyoming, "God's country." His attempts to take his extended clan with him, specifically one effort to teach them all to ski, make for hilarious set pieces.

In the final Rhoda story, we find her as an elderly and content woman who seems to have at last found peace.

The volume contains numerous other "illuminations." In one, "The Abortion," a 17-year old couple, McCamey and Suzy, sweethearts from grammar school, now unmarried high school seniors with college and promising lives before them, find that Suzy is pregnant. Suzy's father is dying from lung cancer in a local hospital, giving her a painful perspective on life and death. And, the pregnancy makes McCamey realize what it is to be an adult, a time when life becomes a series of decisions, never easily made.

In "Alone," Ginny, age 14, must deal with the departure of her best friend Sabra, who is moving to Toronto. The closeness of the two girls makes this a wrenching and traumatic experience. It is so much so that Ginny's mother who "teaches Political Science at the university and is a good friend of Hillary and Bill Clinton," has Ginny see a psychiatrist.

The physiatrist, according to Ginny is "a chubby good-natured sort who tries to be buddy-buddy with me and establish a transference so I'll have him when Sabra leaves…our insurance is paying for it." The friendly psychiatrist suggests that Ginny keep a diary of events and her feelings. Thus, much of the story contains the kind of deadpan humor and on-the-mark, honest observation, which could only come from a 14-year-old.

Gilchrist began her career as a writer of short stories and novels when she was 45. Twenty years later, she continues to demonstrate her ability to be funny, honest, entertaining, and yes, therapeutic. She is a master storyteller who can illuminate a narrative with the soft glow of life-affirming insight and knowledge.

"You should always tell the reader everything good you know," she has said. In this collection, she does just that, and she does it well.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from I, Rhoda, Go Hunting with My Daddy



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Short Story Collections:

Novels:

Poetry collections:

  • The Land Surveyor's Daughter: Poems (1979)
  • Riding Out the Tropical Depression: Selected Poems (1986)

Nonfiction:

Related:

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Ellen Gilchrist (photo by Mary  McCormick) Ellen Gilchrist was born in 1935, near Vicksburg, Mississippi, in Issaquena County. At the age of fourteen, she wrote a column called "Chit and Chat About This and That" for a local Franklin, Kentucky, paper. She attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she received a Bachelor's degree in philosophy. At nineteen, Gilchrist married Marshall Walker, an engineering student, and they had three children. When she divorced Walker, she enrolled in a creative writing course at Millsaps College in Jackson, where she was taught by Eudora Welty. She also studied creative writing at the University of Arkansas.

She published her first collection of short stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, in 1981. It sold more than 10,000 copies, which was an impresssive feat considering it was published by a university press and lacked the normal promotional campaign. In the course of 20 years, Ellen Gilchrist has established herself as one of the finest storytellers in modern southern literature and has won numerous awards over the years. Her second collection of short stories, Victory over Japan, won the National Book Award for Fiction. Other awards include the Mississippi Arts Festival Poetry Award; the New York Quarterly Craft in Poetry Award; the National Endowment of the Arts Grant in Fiction; and the Mississippi Academy of Arts and Science Award for Fiction. In addition, she has received the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Literature Award three times, for In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, Victory Over Japan, and I Cannot Get You Close Enough.

Gilchrist presently lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas and Ocean Springs, Mississippi. As of 2001, she joined the University of Arkansas faculty as an associate professor of creative writing.

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