Book Reviews: Stark or Neighborly?

Feb 10, 2021 at 12:08 pm
Left: Ellen Birkett Morris 
    “Lost Girls” 
    Right: Roger L. Guffey “Stories from the Porch”
Left: Ellen Birkett Morris “Lost Girls”
Right: Roger L. Guffey “Stories from the Porch”

“Lost Girls” by Ellen Birkett Morris (TouchPoint Press; 140 pgs., $13.99) “Stories from the Porch” by Roger L. Guffey (Palmetto; 293 pgs., $14.99)

Here’s a pair of Kentucky writers who have taken very different paths for how they give voice to their short stories. With their collections, both are looking into how to get through and get over some of the tougher times in life.

For Louisville’s Morris, trauma shatters lives, and survival — of body or of spirit — is often a challenge for which help may be fleeting and undependable. Her style is concise, though not so much intentionally clipped as it is focused. Lexington’s Guffey, meanwhile, is more often concerned with how communication and learning can be imparted gradually. He’s unafraid to be outright chatty and to hint to his readers that comfort of setting helps to entertain and even impart lessons.

Morris starts her collection with two of the most devastating pieces. The collection’s eponymous lead-off tale is a quick take on time’s passing in the wake of a horrifying crime. It’s observation from a true (local) historical crime of note but fictionalized as part of linked threads that help maintain the book’s strength. “Inheritance” brings to the fore a well-written brutality — as seen by women and most often directed toward women (from pre-adolescents to the aged).

Most of the dozen-plus tales hinge on reactions to physical or emotional violence. It might seem that there isn’t enough material that doesn’t involve distinct victimization of women, particularly when you see what the author can evoke with the likes of “Harvest,” a beautifully sympathetic study of a life’s somewhat-wayward path. But Morris clearly prefers to emphasize a driven focus. Her choices of detail are spare but affecting (and random, often singular). Rare are the ventures into prose devices like metaphor — such as this from “Swimming,” a swirl of contrasts and intersections in cautious small-town sex lives: “She never imagined that losing her virginity would be like buying a used race car, something shiny and sleek on the outside but broken deep inside.”

Morris’ tales gain potency with their spaces. But is that every reader’s preference? Guffey’s “collection of narratives” includes sections of up to a half-page just to explain how and why one character might find reason to act as storyteller, or why another finds warmth in patient listening (and maybe some coffee at a local diner). There are folksy quirks in need of sharpening — and others could be dropped outright. But some readers keep one shelf in their library for reassuring reminders of what’s already within their experience except for one or two steps into a new moment.

At one end of Guffey’s range, “Apostrophe to Alene” is an easy mystery in structure — but beneath lie multiple layers of maudlin. Other tales confidently venture into the gentler side of what might be read in an Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine or seen in “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” But some are simply the stuff of Norman Rockwell canvasses.

Morris and Guffey give us characters who must go through much they’d rather avoid — as must we all. Guffey might go over to Biblical proverbs for story titles but then let his narrative stray from how the proverb fits into today’s rural America. And Morris might sweep her characters into some of the darkest straits imaginable but wrap up the tale with small signs of friendship, or simple demonstrations of the will to get back on one’s feet.