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Writer's book of stories set in mountain state
makes for a good read

by Norman Julian

(This article appeared in the Dominion Post Newspaper on June 2, 2002.)

    Sometimes when I really want to be nice to myself, I put aside other concerns to sit on the porch and read a good book.  And so it was with pleasant anticipation that I picked up Belinda Anderson's book of memorable short stories set in West Virginia.

    "The Well ain't Dry Yet" is an issue of Mountain State Press.

    I sought out the book after reading Anderson's account of how it came into being. Her narration appeared in the winter edition of Artworks, a tabloid newspaper for artists from the Division of Culture and History and the West Virginia Commission of the Arts.

    "It was every writer's dream -- a publisher wanted a collection of my short stories," says Anderson. Then, over several thousand "how-to" words, she narrates the story of how her book was born and nurtured. Birth and death and the intervening adventures on the journey might be seen as themes in her fiction, too.

    I especially liked the story "Hauling Evelyn," which addresses a dilemma not only in Appalachia but in mainstream America.

    The tale is about a single mother on hard times who hauls around in her car the ashes of her deceased sister Evelyn, undecided on what to do with them.

    "I wish everybody would quit hassling me," the living sister says. "... My great Aunt Wanda says it's sacrilegious to haul Evelyn around in a bucket in the trunk of my car. It's not a bucket. It's a black plastic container, like heavy-duty Tupperware. I've started locking the Impala, because I wouldn't put it past Wanda to try to swipe Evelyn."

    Like so many of her stories, this one puts characters into conflict both personal and cultural.
How do we deal with the costs of the dearly departed when juxtaposed against the needs of those who are alive, like the single mom's children?

    Eventually Anderson's characters work it out in a way that is believable and satisfying.

    As is the case with "Junior." This story is about a boy who is not wanted by the mother he lives with. The story starts: "Mommy's painting her fingernails. That means we're going to visit an uncle."
The "uncles" more accurately are boyfriends, or clients, or whatever. Anderson doesn't exactly spell that out. She does write in justice for Junior, though, when his mommy dumps him with his real father, a never-do-well near alcoholic down on his luck.

    His life's lament is an injury kept him from pursuing a baseball career in "The Bigs."

    He does well by his son in the end, though. In the final paragraph, the boys beams of his new life with his dad and grandma, "They want me."

    It is said that West Virginia spawns fine writers because there is more tragedy here than in most locales in the country where the American Dream is more readily accessible.

Anderson does not so much celebrate the common fate as see the dignity and potential of characters shaped by a society and environment that is not always benign.

    In the tapestry she weaves, the threads of suffering and triumph often blend in a way that satisfies.

    These stories form a microcosm of Appalachia. Reading them, I visualized several could be made into movies.

    Are there larger tapestries in the works for Anderson?