‘When did her home become Wisconsin?” asks a character in “A Kind of Dream.” Kelly Cherry might have inquired this of herself. A Southerner, for many years she taught at the University of Wisconsin, where she compiled an impressive publication record. Retired, Cherry now lives in rural Virginia.
A prologue and epilogue frame the eight short stories in her lovely collection. The prologue traces a family’s history from the early 20th-century American South up to the present in Madison and elsewhere.
Before introducing characters in the prologue, the narrator associates some of them with a part of speech. Palmer, a husband, is noun-like; Octavia, Tavy — daughter, granddaughter, grandniece — is “emphatically a verb.” Because she links the family’s past and future, Tavy’s daughter enjoys conjunction status. “conj. Callie, named for the muse — and for an instrument her mother remembers distantly hearing as a little girl.”
The focus of the collection is the family’s oldest member. In the prologue, Nina is “The Watchful Child,” who “writes everything down, to keep it safe.” By midlife when she marries Palmer, a history professor, she is also a successful novelist and university writing teacher, hence the book’s frequent grammatical references. This isn’t the dry grammar of schoolrooms, however. Cherry’s beautifully rendered stories concern large matters: love, self-knowledge, artistic struggle, death, history.
The exquisite “Story Hour” dramatizes a brief incident first told in the prologue where Tavy, a child, witnesses a shooting. To the tragedy, the author adds the story of Miss Lathrop, a librarian, and her suitor. After the prologue’s bemused, impersonal style comes this in “Story Hour”: felt life, sorrow, the loss (at least partially) of Tavy’s innocence. Cherry’s method is to summarize the family’s history in the prologue, then to expand it in the stories.
In “Shooting Star,” a date with an older boy leads Tavy’s mother to make a feature film years later in Mongolia. In “The Autobiography of My Mother(s),” Tavy recalls her birth mother’s reappearance after 26 years. In “The Only News that Matters,” when Palmer learns of Nina’s illness and seeks his neighbor’s help, the neighbor recalls his own sorrow.
Finally, in the epilogue a dying Nina struggles to write one last story. Always the impulse in the book is to fill in the past, elaborate on it, account for it.
So this is what Nina, Palmer, Tavy, Callie and others have come to in the second decade of the 21st century: They are parts of speech in a rich and complex grammar of life written by a Southerner who once came north to teach in Wisconsin.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.