Belief in all its variations
Acts of God: Stories by Ellen Gilchrist (Algonquin Books, $23.95).
The National Book Award-winning Ellen Gilchrist (Victory Over Japan: Stories, 1984) returns with a collection of stories that directly address belief and the meaning of life and death. These are not simplistic stories, though readers may be deceived into thinking so by Gilchrist’s plain style. Instead, we spend a great deal of time among the people of the Southeast and Southern Midwest in dire circumstances—several of the stories center around Katrina and are set in Mississippi and New Orleans—as they face extraordinary circumstances.
In the title story, Will and Amelie McCamey, an elderly couple, resist their children’s efforts to circumscribe their lives for their own safety, as so many elderly people do. That their adult children are right about their safety is irrelevant; instead, the pair set an example of both how to live and how to die.
In “Miracle in Adkins, Arkansas,” a tornado in a small Arkansas town leads five teenagers from Fayetteville to offer their help, driving over in an old Jeep. It’s distressing work and they’re good kids, but they have a hard time when bodies are being pulled out of wreckage. They find a baby still alive—a miracle—and reunite him with his father. But it’s the after-effects, the self-consciousness of having been part of a “miracle,” and the way it makes the kids want to be kinder and stay closer together, even as the world itself is pulling them apart.
Two stories in a similar vein, “Collateral” and “High Water,” are set around Hurrican Katrina. In the first, Carly, a young widowed single mother and a National Guard First Responder, is called to active duty to deal with Katrina. She’s in the Guard to pay off the student loans that made it possible for her to become an accounting professor at the University of Arkansas, but she’ll miss teaching her first class. The precision with which she deals with classes, setting up her son’s care at his grandparents, and getting herself ready to go is amazing—and the general response to her is one of pride that she serves. She’s competent and no-nonsense, proud of her son and determined to make a good life for him. But her boyfriend is a drunk who cheats on her when she’s working in New Orleans, and she breaks up with him as soon as she gets back. Then she meets a man she really likes, a divorced father with a son younger than hers, and they hit it off, and have a whirlwind courtship. Is Carly’s good fortune the result of a life well-lived, or of divine intervention? Gilchrist leaves it to us to decide.
In “High Water,” a pair of L.A. paramedics vacationing in New Orleans decide not to evacuate for Katrina because they’re having fun. Instead, they ride it out in the oldest apartment building in the French Quarter. They do fine, but then end up volunteering at Tulane Medical Center when the streets start flooding from the lake side. On a break, they loot a Walgreens for supplies and take them back to the medical center—where they’re greeted as heroes. In the meantime, Dave, the narrator, is falling back in love with Dean, his roommate. This love story leads to Dave’s final judgment: Some people are terrible, and lie and cheat and plot to steal, while others “carry morbidly obese patients up six flights of stairs so they can be medevaced to hospitals and kept alive to eat another day.”
"The human race," he says. "You have to love it and wish it well and not preach or think you have any reason to think you are better than anyone else." It’s the sort of spiritual insight that the people Gilchrist has created are likely to make, whether they’re middle-aged women looking after each other during a terrorist attack at Heathrow Airport, resolved eventually by a Vanderbilt alumna’s observation, "We were Americans, for God’s sake, we weren’t in the habit of being afraid.”
The hilariously epistolary story, “The Dogs,” contains a series of communiqués that show us the gradually declining civility of relationships among neighbors, while “The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath” is an insight into how one particularly well-adjusted woman deals with a chronic, crippling disease.
The final two stories, “Jumping Off Bridges into Clean Water” and “Hopedale, a History in Four Acts,” take on the interesting task of covering entire lifespans within the form of the short story. It’s a challenge, but one Gilchrist rises to; there’s an artistry in the way she crosses decades in a sentence and yet does not leave anything out.
These are warm stories, with an honest view of humanity that still leaves room for optimism, and as such, they will no doubt be enjoyed by all but the most misanthropic readers.