Let’s get this warning out of the way: this is a modern anthology of short stories with a southern touch. Key words: modern; touch of southern. In other words, southern, bible-belt evangelicals will take issue with the premarital sex, suicide, gay marriage, and f-bombs contained in this book. For the rest of us that are okay with all of this in our literature, proceed.
Now that we’ve gotten rid of those folks, let’s talk about this book. National Book Award-winner Ellen Gilchrist spent nearly a decade writing the ten short stories appearing here, in ACTS OF GOD. I’m assuming you are like me, and have some basic questions you want answered before reading a short story collection. Here’s my attempt at reading your mind (any other questions, drop in the comment section below):
1) Have these short stories been previously published elsewhere? Not that I can tell by the copyright page.
2) Is there a congruent theme among all the stories? The idea “acts of God” affect people. This is loosely defined, though. There are hurricanes and tornados, but there are also terrorist attacks and love making. Congruency depends on your definition of acts of God. Most of the stories take place in the south, minus one story taking place in Europe while some ladies are on a getaway vacation.
3) Does the author’s voice vary from story to story? The same southerly charm persists throughout, but to some disservice to the work. In cases such as younger protagonists needing “a rubber”, the author’s aged reference breaks believability. The material is good for front porch swing reading, but to some chagrin.
4) Do any stories stand out as particularly good or bad? I appreciated the eponymous “Acts of God” and the last two works “Jumping off Bridges into Clean Water” and “Hopedale, A History in Four Acts”. They were succinct and charming. “Collateral” and “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” both felt long in the tooth and a bit unbelievable.
Overall, the stories try to show ordinary people reacting to life situations, both ordinary and extra-ordinary. Themes present include: independence among the elderly, finding hope in tragedy, connecting with lost love, overcoming bias, and dealing with broken bodies. The age reference may appeal to readers over fifty, but there is enough charm for the younger crowd, too.
Thanks to Algonquin Books for providing me with a review copy of this book.