Monday, June 11, 2012

Dining with Robert Redford: Reading with Tamra Wilson

Most of the time when I read short stories, I am selecting them from an anthology featuring different writers.  Occasionally, I have the luxury of reading several by a particular author.  In fact, in the fiction unit of the literature course I teach, I sometimes have my students read several stories by one author in order to discover common elements of style.  Our text usually includes several by one of my favorites, Flannery O'Connor, as well as Hawthorne or Faulkner.  When author Ron Rash appeared at our Writers Symposium a couple of years ago, in addition to teaching his novel Serena, I also used some of the short stories from his collection Burning Bright, which particularly struck a chord with our students.

The short stories in Tamra Wilson's first collection Dining with Robert Redford, many of which have been published in a variety of journals come from the perspective of a variety of women, mostly working class Southern women.  Wilson is a native of Illinois, but having lived in the South for years now, she brings the stories to live with colorful details, recognizable settings, and authentic voices.  Hers are not necessarily happy women; they often seem to have an edge of dissatisfaction and disappointment, borne out in their attitudes toward the people with whom they live and work.

While Wilson's protagonists often come across as judgmental--displaying thinly veiled jealousy, sanctimoniously dining on gossip, comparing themselves--almost invariably favorably--with the neighbors, they resemble in spirit Flannery O'Connor's Mrs. Turpin of "Revelation" or Mrs. Hopewell in "Good Country People."  Readers may feel critical of them only up to the point of recognizing ourselves and our own flaws.

One thread that runs through the collection is the fine line between settling and accepting one's circumstances and limitations. Readers are forced to question the current educational environment, forcing young people toward paths before they've had time to develop their own interests or to live up to their parents' dreams of uber achievement. Wilson's characters also deal with consequences of early choices and actions, forcing them into dead end jobs or doomed marriages.

While the underlying themes are serious, Wilson constructs her stories and her characters with humor and sympathy.  The conflicts aren't life and death; they are simply real life.  Readers will find themselves comfortable pulling up a chair in the kitchen or pulling up a chair at the quilting bee right alongside these folks--or peeking out their windows to see what the neighbors are up to now.

Tamra Wilson demonstrates that the richness of story doesn't come as a Southern birthright but as a result of simply paying close attention in a small-town life.

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