Books by Meredith Sue Willis
Reviews of Meli's Way
Novels and Short Stories for Adults
Foreverland Press has re-published
A Space Apart in all E-Book Formats
With an Afterword By the Author
Meredith Sue Willis's first novel, also reprinted as part of the Authors' Guild Back-in-Print series, was first published in 1979 by Charles Scribner's Sons. Says Willis of the novel, "The most remarkable thing to me when I reread this novel is how little awareness I had at the time of any cultural or historical background to West Virginia and the Appalachian region. The novel is emotionally and artistically sophisticated, but it is undergirded with a conviction that time had stopped in West Virginia: I wrote primarily of the post world war II years just before I was born and during my early childhood. For all young children, of course, there is no history: there is now and there is the Age of Giants, when there were your people before you. The situation in this novel is stripped down to a small town as an isolated and ultimate place. Even though I had been living in New York for a number of years at the time I wrote it, and even though I had participated in some of the political events of the late sixties and early seventies, working against war, for people abandoned to poverty, my West Virginia was captured in a crystal ball, in a snow crystal. It was a place where the most important building was a church, the most important social relations between those who lived more or less genteelly in town and those who had once lived without indoor plumbing in the outlying mining camps. What I specifically was thinking about thematically (as opposed to feeling) as I wrote it, was moral and social strictures and transgressing them.
"I wrote in a journal enty in late April, 1974, when I was still calling the book Soap Opera, that 'Soap Opera of course is about a small town of the mind, Galatia, but perhaps I can work through, get out all my feelings about the rigidness, the laws: community imposed, family imposed, self-imposed. All the Galatians know the laws so very well.... They do not really know how to seek out freedom. I am thinking of naming the novel The Galatians. I just read Paul's Epistle to the Galatians. Its theme is faith over law, new freedom in love over old law; also backsliding of those who have seen the revealed truth into demand for circumcision & other legalistic manifestations of grace.'"
Reviews of the new edition of A Space Apart
These reviews are of the new Foreverland e-edition 2013:
In 1979, Meredith Sue Willis published her first novel, "A Space Apart," about a Baptist minister's family in a small West Virginia town. She has made a few revisions for this e-book edition, but the original was such a solid, even inspired, piece of work that she could afford to edit with a very light hand. The only difference, really, is that now an occasional rumor of events in the outside world -- Vietnam, Kent State -- drifts into the lives of three generations of Scarlins as they wrestle with God, their neighbors and one another.
Their story begins with the Preacher, a half-crazed, self-ordained patriarch who holds services in a hardscrabble coal-mining village and has "narrowed his doctrine to the point where no one came to his church anymore." His son, John, smoother and seminary-trained, tries to reassemble the family in a more "graceful" place, the town of Galatia -- the dying old man, John's sister Mary Katherine, his new wife Vera and, in time, their daughters Lee and Tonie. The Scarlins -- whose very name hints at wounding and healing and the indelible signs of both -- are a close and loving family. They are also a collection of stubborn individuals who can barely communicate. The town is a snug refuge; it's also a trap they yearn to escape.
In 10 chapters, each from a particular character's point of view, Willis follows the Scarlins from about 1950 into the 1970s. The chapters are like a series of home movies, rich in detail and emotion; we see all the characters from the inside and the outside, older and younger, and in little more than 200 pages we get a remarkably complete picture of them. Take, for example, the chapter in which 9-year-old Tonie, about to be baptized, refuses to promise publicly not to sin in the future because it's a promise she's not sure she can keep. Her father, John, insists that she make the pledge. The resulting semi-comic confrontation is not only striking in its insight into Tonie's state of mind; we also get a foretaste of her later unfocused rebellion, and we realize that John, for all his modernity and authority, is chained to his own father's dogma and hogtied by worry over what the townspeople will think of him.
Vera is my favorite character. All her life she has been told that she's flighty and selfish. She plays girlish pranks and tells outrageous lies -- sometimes to entertain, sometimes to keep her own painful, nomadic childhood at bay, and once to sabotage John's plans to move to a bigger church in a bigger town. (She has had enough of moving.) The world knows Vera as a sloppy housekeeper, a disturbingly pretty woman who's not quite a fit wife for a clergyman. In truth, she's an artist, with no outlet in Galatia but the children's Easter plays she directs. Only her older daughter, Lee, who goes off to New York City with dreams of becoming an actress, understands this about her.
Looming over them always like the shadow of a slag heap is the poverty-stricken coal-camp culture from which so many Galatia residents came. One of Mary Katherine's high school friends, Roe Pickett, has emerged by sheer grit and book-learning from a family of drunken bums; in her rise she gets entangled with Joe Bob Farley, a college-educated rich boy skidding down into being a drunken bum, and can't tear herself loose until Tonie takes up with him. Is Tonie going up or down? As if she were an actual, complex person we happened to know, we aren't sure -- but, as with all the Scarlins, we care.
-- Michael M. Harris, author of Romantic History and The Chieu Hoi Saloon
When Meredith Sue Willis's first novel, which tells the story of a troubled preacher's family in West Virginia, first came out in 1979, it was declared a cause for celebration by the Los Angeles Times. Comparing Willis to Anne Tyler, the Times wrote: "She has written with depth and honesty about a life style available to many of us only though books." A Space Apart, according to The Philadelphia Bulletin, "weaves a web of subtle suspense and poetic perception."
Now the electronic re-issue of the novel, making it easily and economically available, is again a cause for celebration, and those keeping running tally on the pros and cons of technology's impact on literature, have got to put this new incarnation solidly in the "pro" column.
Certainly this is true for me, having missed the novel the first time around. I have, however, long known Willis's short story collection, In the Mountains, which shares a similar West Virginia setting, and has the same ability to render ordinary speech so lyrically that you stop and repeat sentences to yourself. (This is something I think only small town Southerners--and maybe a few open-space Westerners--can achieve.) I loved those stories. But A Space Apart, which I had not read, is even better, fiercer, nailing the place and the people to the wall as only a passionate first novel can do.
Narrated by different characters, this is the story, first, of John and Mary Katherine, young adults who have survived, barely, their upbringing in a tiny village by the old Preacher, a harsh, sanctimonious, selfish man whom we first meet as an aged and drooling invalid. Though he has one foot in the grave, he still manages to make life hell for his offspring. Perverse to the end, he demands, after railing against the Catholics for a lifetime, to confess to a priest on his death bed.
John, who becomes the new Preacher in the larger town of Galatia, struggles, as does his sister, not to resemble the furious, doctrinaire, self-involved old Preacher. But we feel that John's immense effort to create himself as the opposite of all he has known leaves him little space for his own humanity. Boring himself in one of his own sermons he hears the yawns in the congregation, feeling that there is "no one to listening but God, and God is bored too."
And by bringing home a pretty, affectionate but slightly unhinged young wife, Vera, the new Preacher sets himself up for a lifetime of crisis. Unable to even pretend to keep house, for example, she is tormented by church ladies who often drop by to check up on her. On one occasion, realizing she has badly blown the visit of an important three-person committee, Vera slips away from her guests, and without apparent thought, ("her mouth began to grin, to peel back over her teeth") opens a dress-up box and reappears as a dance hall girl in open-toed red shoes and a "pink nylon hostess gown she never wore because the neck was cut so low." The ensemble is completed by a green plastic ring from a Cracker Jack box, a not-so-subtle jab at one of the visiting ladies who ostentatiously wears a large ring over gloves. The committee is of course scandalized and John's prospects of advancement are destroyed. It is trouble he doesn't deserve and that Vera will never live it down; still the scene is a guilty pleasure for any reader who has experienced the sanctimony of some church folks.
Vera, who never really had a home or parents, is the character I find most heartbreaking. John and Mary Katherine will never know true peace but that are, at least, profoundly of the place. But Vera, brought from afar, will always be adrift. At first she seems to be a hopeful character, one who might bring some playfulness and pleasure to the lives of her husband and sister-in-law.
And at first Vera had loved the town nestled in the mountains; she felt herself becoming "almost became an adult." She "loved John for beauty and Mary Katherine for moral excellence and the old Preacher for being perfectly himself." When her first baby, Lee, arrived Vera wore the infant "like a jewel." But soon Galatia "grew as vast and uncertain as the whole world" and her daughters, beloved but raised in a frustratingly haphazard way, grew angry and confused and, before long, became "old enough to judge."
Consulting Paul's New Testament message to the original Galatians, I find the assurance that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."
But, though the church is the center of life, few in the new Galatia have achieved these blessings. Even Mary Katherine, who manages to fashion a coherent adulthood and whose voice feels authorial, is far from a state of grace. Toward the end of the book she muses: "As far as she could see the only improvement she had made over the old Preacher was that she could separate her anger from the wrath of God."
Trying to fathom Descartes, which one of her children has read in school, she suddenly begins to doubt one of the main precepts of the Christian church, the Virgin birth, and is shaken to be told by someone who has attended college that the whole idea of virgin birth is a mistranslation; the original Greek the term was only "young girl."
Lord--could everything everybody has believed forever be a mistake? Astonishingly, Mary Katherine dares to ask herself this.
That's the kind of book it is.
But if peace, kindness and forbearance haven't always been achieved, a dogged grit has. May Katherine takes a deep breath and then gives herself grim but clear-headed advice: "Well, I won't jump to any conclusions, the thing to do is clear away the mess and find out just how much I believe in, just that and no more."
-- Diane Simmons, author of Little America and Dreams Like Thunder
These reviews are of the first Charles Scribners Sons edition:
First novelist Willis shapes her story with exquisite care, detailing the lives of a West Virginia preacher's family: John Scarlin, minister and son of "the Preacher," a wild old born-again Baptist; John's sturdy sister Mary Katherine; his capricious wife Vera, a strong character who commands attention in one fine scene after another; and his daughters Lee and Tonie who grow up to reject and embrace the meaning of Galatia, their hometown. In a novel of character more than event, these five people reveal themselves in chapters which progress in time, alternate in point of view. Finally what is revealed is a family, inextricably bound together while struggling with each other's need to find "a place apart." Narratively skilled and disciplined, this is an impressive debut.
— Library Journal
A Space Apart is so deftly and subtly written, I hardly noticed how involved I'd become until I'd read the last page and turned it, wanting more. The Scarlin family is going to be with me for a very long time.
— Anne Tyler
Willis fleshes out with warmth and tenderness the omplexities of family love, which not only defines commitment but deepens the need. An important new talent.
— The Kirkus Reviews
Ms. Willis writes with wisdom and with warmth, weaving a web of subtle suspense and poetic perception. And when she is finished, she has left the reader contentedly fulfilled– yet longing for more.
—The Philadelphia Bulletin
This is the story of a broken family trying to mend itself through three generations. It is a painful but essential process, and like all such repair jobs, it is only partly successful. Before it is over we come to know John and Vera and Mary Kay, as well as Vera's daughters, Lee and Tonie— to understand the wars they must declare and the peaces that they are able to proclaim within the state of being Scarlins
– The Philadelphia Inquirer
Willis views the Scarlin family ties and loyalties, limits and tensions, with realism, sensitivity and precision. A noteworthy first novel.
The narrative carries warmth and strength. The people are as real as your next door neighbors.
For readers who have enjoyed Anne Tyler's novels or Frederick Busch short stories, the arrival of Meredith Sue Willis will be cause to celebrate. She has written with depth and honesty about a life style available to many of us only through books.
– The Los Angeles Times
The title novella is a marvel that successfully experiments with point of view, rapidly gyrating between the four main characters in the piece–Dwight, Fern, Susan, and Elaine. Willis pulls off this exhilarating As I Lay Dying technique quite nicely, managing to probe the inner states of each character, as well as allowing the innate conflict to surface in an almost organic fashion. Within a rustic Massachusetts setting, Willis introduces us to Dwight, an abusive and malicious man from West Virginia who envies the sleek modern cabin of the Jewish couple by the lake; his withdrawn wife Susan; Fern, who hates her stepfather; and Elaine, the neighbor who has retreated to her lakeside cabin to come to terms with the lump in her breast. In superbly piercing, almost brittle prose, the story ultimately manages to portray class conflict, the roots of anti-Semitism, the consequences of adultery, as well as render a family's free fall.
In Dwight's House and Other Stories, Meredith Sue Willis's eclecticism and layered prose releases us from the moorings of "regional fiction." This is a significant book from an accomplished author much deserving of a wider readership.
-- Nathan Leslie, Main Street Rag, Volume 9, Number 1, Spring 2005
The occupants of two summer lake houses in western Massachusetts spend a couple of stormy winter days coping with their own problems and getting involved with each other's. Privileged Elaine Roth, a housewife whose children have grown, has fled to her summer home to escape the twin revelations that her husband has been committing adultery and that she has a lump in her breast.
Next door, in a rundown fishing cottage, jobless Dwight and Susan huddle in blankets trying to avoid the cold. Their two young sons and Susan's adolescent daughter Fern haven't gone to school in weeks, since Dwight's truck stopped functioning. When Elaine impulsively invites Dwight's family over for brunch, the situation turns explosive.
Willis breaks out of the narrow borders of the short story by switching among the points of view of Dwight, Elaine, frazzled Susan, and obdurate Fern. She develops the four corners of this stubborn rectangle with equal care. Although Dwight is the obvious candidate for the villain of the piece, even he is not a totally unsympathetic character. Willis nicely balances empathy with implicitly moral judgment....Willis regards all of her characters with unsentimental compassion. Her fiction leads us by the hand into dark places, and then leaves us on our own to find our way out.
This collection includes the 109-page novella, Dwight's House, and four short stories, ranging in length from seven to twenty-four pages. Most are set on lakes surrounded by homes which could be located in Willis's native West Virginia or the Northeast where she has now lived most of her adult life. Willis always offers the reader a good old-fashioned straight-forward tale, but her fascinating and sometimes quirky characters are what distinguish her as a story-teller.
-- Appalachian Heritage, Volume 33, Number 1, Winter 2005
Written by a prize-winning member of the Appalachian Renaissance in literature, Dwight's House & Other Stories is an anthology of short stories by critically acclaimed author Meredith Sue Willis. Focusing on believeable characters put in paralyzing dilemmas, these tales examine the troubling paradoxes of the human condition with sympathy and synchronicity. The stories presented are "Dwight's House", "Attack", "Tiny Gorillas", "Another Perversion", and "Tales of the Abstract Expressionists". Highly recommended.
-- Midwest Book Review
Meredith Sue Willis...has delivered a new collection of short fiction, Dwight's House and Other Stories (Hamilton Stone Editions). Known for pitch-perfect rendering of her native Appalachia, she is in top voice, pitting the familiar against other American subcultures and threats ranging from surreal air attacks to the specter of death in old age. She creates messy lives hurtling toward even worse complications, but they always release a slyly reassuring spirit, as when a scandal-ridden narrator concludes, "I don't know. I'm worn down by loneliness and fear. I'm afraid I may be on the verge of trying altruism, the last, the greatest, perversion."
-- Claudia Ebeling, "For a Long Winter's Read" (See page 16)
This author has the rare ability to get under the skin of wildly different characters to such an effect that the reader is not only entranced but emerges with a deeper understanding of these poor mortals, of which we are one. Beautifully written, powerfully effective.
-- Rebecca Kavaler
The title story in Meredith Sue Willis' second collection is set during a year of explosions: the first space shuttle; the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl; the rundown little cottage at the lake. In this new collection of stories and a novella set at summer houses and around lakes, Meredith Sue Willis explores the places where we are most exposed.
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Read a sample in the Hamilton Stone Review
To order online, click on Higher Ground;
Only Great Changes; Trespassers.
The three novels of the Blair Morgan Trilogy follow Blair Ellen Morgan through the nineteen sixties, from a small mining town in north-central West Virginia to anti-poverty work in Tidewater Virginia to anti-Vietnam War protests in New York City. Higher Ground and Only Great Changes were originally published in hardcover by Scribner's in 1981 and 1985. The complete complete trilogy, including the final volume, Trespassers, is now available in paperback from Hamilton Stone Editions.
...The story of Blair Ellen Morgan, the daughter of teachers in rural West Virginia, who grows up to experience all the turbulence at the heart of the 1960's.
— Claudia Ebeling in Bucknell World
Miss Willis sustains a reader's attention...throughout the trilogy by being a master of what might be called thumbnail episodes. Every significant encounter between consorts, friends, parents, neighbors has a setting and a beginning, middle, and end. The effect is the feeling of being eased along story to story through a narrative where the meaning of each episode will be revealed. Even the most disturbing episodes have some measure of grace, and this comes because of Miss Willis' steady, assured narrative style.
— Carol Herman in The Washington Times
Higher Ground and Only Great Changes deeply moved me and convinced me of three very important things. One, it is possible for a writer to join a social vision with a creative vision. Two, it is possible to think and write of Appalachia in new and empowering ways without resorting to stereotypes. And three, well-crafted, stylistically sophisticated fiction can do positive political work. The political and social relevancy of these two novels rests in Willis' representation of Blair Ellen Morgan's coming of age over the approximately twenty years from the late 1950's to 1974.
— Tal Stanley, "Making That New Place: Blair Morgan's Coming of Age and Meredith Sue Willis' Social Vision," The Iron Mountain Review, Volume XII
For Ordering information, see individual books below.
Higher Ground was first published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1981. This was Meredith Sue Willis's second book, and it began the Blair Morgan trilogy, which examines small town life and social movements of the 1960's through the lens of Blair Ellen Morgan's coming-of-age. Out of print for many years, it was republished in 1996 by Hamilton Stone Editions and remains in print.
As in her fine first novel, A Space Apart (1979), Willis tests the soft, cutting filaments of family love against the lure of that ""higher ground"" beyond: larger intimacies, exhilarating freedoms. Again, also, she probes the sunken, serpentine divisions between the small-town Establishment and those who don't measure up. Eleven-year-old Blair Ellen, only child of West Va. high school teachers who survived Depression poverty, knows that whatever decision Mother and Daddy make, ""they were just trying to make me the best possible girl I could be."" And somehow she senses that her summer friendship with the Odell children doesn't fit with this ideal: even though Mother says it's a good deed to befriend those ""poor children,"" it still feels ""abnormal."" After all, smooth, secretive India and Garland (who practices dancing like a teenager with such strange concentration) live on a mountain with no electricity--a home on top of the world, with ""a great swell of grass and sky."" So Blair Ellen decides that India and Garland will always be her special friends, and they will ""mean just what I want them to mean."" But, entering high school four years later, fairly pretty Blair Ellen is secure in popularity, good grades, teacher approval; and now the hill children--at first dressed ""wrong""--flicker in and out of her interest. She's drawn instead to the ""tough gloss"" of her neighbor Bunny (""no father and not very clean""), whom Blair Ellen--unconsciously manipulative--would like to ""save"" with the gift of her friendship. But Bunny, unsaved, elopes from her raw-nerved household at 17, so Blair Ellen eventually responds, sexually stirred, to Garland's curiously persistent need for her regard. (He sees through her, however: ""You're just playing around, aren't you?"") And finally, Blair Ellen, now married and living in Manhattan, returns for her tenth high school reunion, only to find that social guidelines have shifted and become more intricate--but on a return to the Odells' mountain (they've left), she sees new possibilities for union in a segmented human landscape. Not quite the perfect gem of A Space Apart--the high school section lags a bit--but Willis' breathtakingly subtle soundings of homes and small towns (where everything and nothing happens) reaffirm her as a writer of real consequence.
The adolescence of Blair Ellen Morgan, who attends the high school where her parents teach, is richly realized in the complexities of relationships begun when she was 11, with the slatternly Odells, hill-country people who were her aunt's neighbors. Blair is a delight of paradoxes in her quest for "my special friends who mean exactly what I want them to mean...." Higher Ground is heartwarming, funny and sad, quite delightful reading.
-- Publisher's Weekly
A look at the secret feelings of a growing girl. These feelings might be shared with a best friend, if you had one you trusted completely.
-- Houston Chronicle
Meredith Sue Willis...writes with tenderness and ease of the trials of adolescence. With an eye for detail and an ear for dialogue, she has produced a vivid account of growing up in a small town in the late fifties and early sixties. Though the time, place, and personalities are specific, the thoughts and emotions are universal.
-- Columbia Magazine
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Only Great Changes was first published by Charles Scribner's Sons to considerable critical acclaim in 1985. This middle book of the Blair Morgan trilogy takes Blair out of West Virginia to do anti-poverty work as a VISTA volunteer in urban Tidewater, Virginia. Out of print for many years, it was republished in 1997 by Hamilton Stone Editions and remains in print.
Willis makes a familiar story fresh and engaging with her wise perceptions and unusual language.
-- San Francisco Chronicle
Willis again picks meaningfully at the charge-laden fences between peoples, castes, and individual needs
-- Kirkus Reviews
Authors....pretend to write about all of life, but mostly they opt for the excitement. It takes talent, observation, and a particular caring to bring the average person's experience to life in a book. Willis does it here, making gold out of common materials. There are indications that she is not done with Blair Ellen yet, and I can't wait for the alchemy of her next book.
-- The Plain Dealer
. . . "[M]oments of personal anguish are at the heart" of this novel, and they add up to a complex and convincing portrait of a young woman coming to grips with change."
– Jon Volkmer, "Review of Only Great Changes" in Prairie Schooner # 60, 134-135.
In Meredith Sue Willis's Only Great Changes, the familiar conventions of the novel of initiation are made new by a convincing female protagonist and a narrative that uses politics as the setting and vehicle of individual maturation. Willis locates the experience of coming of age in the matrix of a larger history, focusing 1960's young and political culture through finely cut lenses of region, gender, and race.
-- Barbara Melosh in Radical History Review
Take a half dozen of the novelists who routinely show up as repeaters on the best-seller lists, ask them to put their united talents into one collaboration, and the chances are they couldn't write a page which Meredith Sue Willis couldn't do better. She would beat them with the acuteness of her eyes and ears, her unfaltering way of bringing the fruits of her observation alive on paper and her sure sense of where to look in the crannies of human affairs for the materials of drama.
-- Leslie Hanscomb in New York Newsday
Whle visiting West Virginia last week, I stopped in Taylor Books in Charleston and picked up Only Great Changes. Boy, I was glad I did! Gobbled it up in two days, really relating to the '60s political/sexual scene. Very real characters, including the community folks, and surprising plot twists. I loved the "new name for God" speech from Dave and [the] tough-but-tender protagonist. Thanks for writing it.
-- Ed Davis
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Trespassers, published in in 1997 by Hamilton Stone Editions is the final book of the Blair Morgan trilogy. In this novel,Blair goes to New York CIty and involves herself in the anti-war movement.
"Luminous" and "altogether satisfying"
-- The Washington Times
With the same attention to detail she brought to her character's small town childhood, Willis brings the people, ambiance and events of the urban experience out of the past and into a fresh light 30 years later. The silky locution that springs from the Appalachian heritage of storytelling is fully empowered here. Critics agree: Others have written of the same era, but few write as well.
-- Claudia Ebeling in Bucknell World
Trespassers, the final volume in Meredith Sue Willis's luminous Blair Morgan trilogy, brings its West Virginia-born heroine to the brink of adulthood and to the epicenter of her generations' rage. it is 1967, and 20-something Blair is off to New York City to begin life on her own....The novel is different in tone than the earlier books of the trilogy, in which it was possible to detect the cadence of West Virginia (right down to Blair being called Blair Ellen by those who knew her then). This book is blunter, with more dialogue. There's no mistaking New York.
-- Carol Herman in The Washington Times
"I finished reading Trespassers. I was enjoying it so much that I put it down with 20 or so pages left to go so I wouldn’t get to the end. I took a break but then I had to get to the bust and beyond. I have to admit that my favorite character was Roy – his fish-out-of-water strange behavior appealed to me. Blair was great, and her transformation was fascinating. I wouldn’t call it a coming of age novel; more like a coming to the age novel, arriving at the point of mastery and wholeness.... [it] captured the spirit and the feeling and the exhilaration and even the silliness. Keep trespassing.”
– Hilton Obenzinger, Associate Director, Hume Writing Center, Stanford University
It felt so “true” even though my 60's and 70's were not in Manhattan; nevertheless, there was something about the scene that just kept rushing back to me; friends, lost friends, politics, relationships, drugs, rock-n-roll, the heady reading...all of it– thank you for a wonderful story
— Marc Harshman
Willis demolishes dreaded Appalachian female stereotypes....Blair Ellen is a particular girl, to be sure, from a particular region of the country, which itself represents the reforming spirit of the turbulent ‛60's, but her aspirations and experiences in social action speak to a collective, inclusive identity which makes her a representative of her generation, not her region.
— Gina Herring, Appalachian Journal, Volume 25, Number 4, Summer 1998.
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Meredith Sue Willis's highly praised collection of short stories set in the Appalachian region, has been in print since 1994. It has been used as a text in college classrooms. To read a sample story, click here .
The author of three novels set in Appalachia, Willis populates her first collection of 11 stories and one essay with men, women and children fueled by secret passions, and by the act of storytelling itself. ``What I love is when the storyteller says simply, `Just listen to this,'"" Willis writes in ``My Father's Stories: An Essay,'' which opens her book. It's no wonder, then, that Willis goes on to let her shop-owning grandmothers and adolescent waitresses draw each other into the histories of their lives with stories. In ``Adventures of the Vulture,'' a local oddball confesses her life secrets to an undertaker in a letter meant to elaborate her eventual funeral arrangements. Secrets are common in these characters' lives. Love affairs and murder fantasies are rarely spoken, but their presence infuses these smart stories with tensions beyond the limits of plot. The two shortest pieces, ``Miracle of the Locust Root'' and ``The Trestle,'' accomplish the least, not because of their brevity, but because a moral seems forced abruptly on the reader. Elsewhere Willis follows her own advice and lets her stories speak for themselves.
Ms. Willis...provides a[n]...important lesson on the nature and function of literature itself.
Thomas H. Cook ( New York Times Book Review)
Willis scouts her characters like undiscovered paths.
The Village Voice
Pure, twangy bewitching entertainment.
Chris Faatz, The Nation
Terrific stories. Rueful, humorous, close to the bone. You cannot help but like and feel for Willis's characters. In these stories you hear the pure mental clarity and honesty of distilled experiences, and a life-long dedication to craft.
Rich with the traditions of Appalachia and even richer with the wise intelligence of its author...Willis explores her characters' bonds with family, home place, landscape, God, and nation, noting the strength of such bonds and the individual accommodations they so often demand. Willis defines the boundaries between mountain hollows and towns, between rural regions and urban ones, and she uses those boundaries to limn the spiritual reach of her characters....The characterizations are detailed; the dialogue is spry; the prose sings.
Alyson Hagy, "In the Mountains of America,"Appalachian Journal (Vol. 22, Number 1)
....That, finally, is what creates the true power of narrative in Meredith Sue Willis' or any true artist's work: the ability to give the reader or the listener moments of real life, but in so doing to capture the mystery, the translucence which makes art transcend life.
Jack L. Wills, "The Story's the Thing: The Power of Narrative in In the Mountains of America," The Iron Mountain Review (Vol. XII)
...Meredith Sue Willis's In the Mountains of America ...will give you family values in their unvarnished state....
– Art Winslow, The Nation
....Willis' writing– like the quilts described in the closing story "Family Knots"– is exquisitely rendered with multiple textures and complex designs.
– Feminist Bookstore News
In the Mountains of America is a beautifully-written, tender and clear-eyed collection of short stories set in Appalachia in which the reader is invited to shed big city ways, and settle back--way back like the country people who inhabit these mountain hollows and tales and who enjoy a good story themselves--and to "just listen. Listen." Meredith Sue Willis's characters are worth listening to. Distinctive, quick-witted, and touching, they, like all of us, are searching to make sense of lives bounded by family, community, geography and social class.
Willis creates dialogue you can hear, details you can see. In "The Little Harlots," Roy Critchfield, a ninth-grader, struggles to reconcile "the raw burden of his body" with his burgeoning desires and his father's strict religious views. "I don't chew my cud twice," his father snaps at Roy after his mother leaves home and refuses his father's angry demand to return. In "The Birds That Stay" the meaning of a young woman's death is examined through the four voices of her daughter, grandmother, father, and mother. Jody Otis, the dead woman's father, mulls violence. He sits in the kitchen glaring at the passing thick-soled shoes of his daughter's "pit viper" husband, Buddy, the man he blames for her death, while Ellen Morgan Otis, the dead woman's mother, wants only "to feel love for all these fine pople here today grieving with us," understanding by the story's end that no matter how strong one's desire to affix cause and blame to life's tragedies, we dwell somewhere between darkness and beauty, in an "unknown" middle.
This understanding permeates each of these twelve stories. In the luminous "Family Knots," we follow Narcissa Foy, a patchwork quilter, from childhood into middle age as she creates complex quilting patterns that parallel the unexpected complexities of her own quiet mountain life. As a child, Narcissa has always liked "the crazy quilts best . . . following trails of color wherever they led and then later discover[ing] shapes that contained [her] discovery." Narcissa bears five children, the next-to-last a difficult labor. Her breasts become inflamed and she dreams of a quilt "the color of her struggle to nourish this baby," a quilt with colors that "trickle and form paths like veins, twisting, weaaving, plaiding, bursting open like fireworks or zinnias unfurled"--a pattern called Family Knots. Its creation ushers in a period of Narcissa's limited recognition as an artist by city collectors. When Narcissa's college-educated daughter, Lou, implores her to move to the city and study art--"It will smother your talent, never leaving here," insisted Lou--Narcissa wonders "if she had been smothered, and allowed it was possible that something had been, but something else had been made strong." Her destiny has been more than quilts. It has also been raising a family, stitching together "the pattern of people"--and she, Narcissa, "was in the pattern."
Some of the stories in In the Mountains of America are long, some short, some dense, others more like yarns. But all illuminate a kind of double consciousness, the fact that we know the world by the stories we tell and we know ourselves through the creation of these narratives. Willis herself is attracted to tales that reveal how an event, or landscape viewed from one vantage point (the New York City skyline, the lights, the war in Vietnam, in "Evenings with Dotson," a wonderful tale of high school romance revisited) can be perceived as the opposite from another's point of view--and even from one's own point of view in another context. With her ancestral roots in Appalachia and a present-day family life in New York and New Jersey, Meredith Sue Willis brings a surprisingly convincing optimism and far-reaching embrace of cultural differences to her readers.
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With Jane WIlson Joyce
....the story “Family Knots” by novelist Meredith Sue Willis sketches the life of a turn-of-the-century quilt artist who succeeded in blooming where she was planted in rural Appalachia. With determination and daring she pieces her way though difficult relationships, heavy responsibilities, and changing times, always searching for elusive scraps of color that will bring her dreams and patterns to life. Give yourself a gift of renewal in the jewel of a book.
– Carol Crowley, Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine
For those who love quilts, for those who love accomplished writing, and for those who love both, this small book will come as a gift.
...a short, comforting, poignant reading, much like the experience of the piecing, quilting, and family stitchery the work describes.
— Ann Kilkelly, Ace Magazine
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Quilt Pieces: The Quilt Poems/FamilyKnots/
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Hard Copy (West Virginia University Press) and
E-Book (Irene Weinberger Books)
To begin with, I love the title of this novel. I’ve never heard the name “Oradell”, and the “at sea” is appropriately ambiguous. What I actually should begin with is that Oradell at Sea is a novel by my sister-in-law, Meredith Sue Willis, an accomplished and recognized writer with a long list of publications.
Oradell is an elderly widow who, after a life that’s hard in the way many lives are, is living out her days on cruise ships. The confined space of a boat at sea throws her into social contact with other passengers and the crew, an intimacy she relishes and controls. The onboard narrative is intersected by scenes from the life that led her from a mining town in West Virginia through three husbands. The contrast between the spatial and temporal confinement of the boat story and the openness of the life story is aesthetically pleasing. Thematic unities emerge that I will not spoil.
This is a small novel in the sense that it quite deliberately limits its pallette. But it’s quietly about the big theme of what stays with us as we get to what we become. Very lovely.
[A] comic, sad, and beautiful story.
Oradell Greengold is the brassy narrator of Meredith Sue Willis' Oradell at Sea (Vandalia Press, $22.50). She spends her days and her deceased husband's fortune cruising on first-class luxury liners where young Greek deckhands wait on her hand and foot-rub.
While aboard the Golden Argonaut from Acapulco to San Juan, Oradell describes her gritty Appalachian upbringing in a West Virginia coal-mining town. Her first husband, a passionate union organizer, was the love of her life. Her next husband showed her the seedy side of Las Vegas. In New York she got lucky with her third and last husband, whom she met while waiting on tables in a Greek restaurant.
In between reminiscences, Oradell befriends a jaded young California girl and spends more time with the Greek staff than with the other ship passengers. Oradell is a modern-day Mae West who unapologetically enjoys her wealth and its privileges, which includes boozing it up with the help. She never turns sloppy and sentimental, even when faced with a potentially life-threatening illness. Willis, a native of West Virginia, is the author of 10 books.
-- Hal Jacobs, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and
For the whole review, click here.
'Zank heaven for little girls.' Not since Carson McCullers has anyone given us a Southern bell-ringer as scabbed and admirable as this motherless widow from Shacky Hill.
—Maureen Holm, Big City Lit
In her twelfth book, Oradell at Sea, novelist Meredith Sue Willis charts the psychological course of an elderly woman facing the end of her life with unfinished business. The title character, Oradell Greengold, is a wealthy widow who started out as a penniless youngster in the coalfields of West Virginia; now, she finds herself pampered by Greek waiters on an opulent cruise ship wending its way from Acapulco to Puerto Rico.
As the journey progresses, Oradell's character moves toward integration of long-standing issues that have dogged her throughout her adult life. The reader gradually learns Oradell's history as Willis skillfully intercuts chapters from Oradell's youth and middle age with episodes that are unfolding on board the ship.
From this "back story" we come to understand that Oradell grew up in a poor section of West Fork, West Virginia, aptly named "Shacky Hill," that her mother died when when was small, and that her alcoholic father froze to death in an alley when she was still in her teens. With little guidance about puberty and sex, Oradell falls prey to a womanizing employer and makes some bad choices about men, yet she manages to emerge from her struggles as a strong willed and engaging personality.
Thanks to a fortunate marriage to a moneyed New Yorker late in life, Oradell can now afford to be a difficult and eccentric cruise ship passenger, relying on her dead husband's money and prodigious quantities of gin to smooth her way.
Even with those accouterments, however, she cannot forget the great love of her life– her first husband, Mike Brown– a labor activist who dies mysteriously while on an organizing trip to Kentucky. Widowed soon after their marriage and pregnant with Mike's child, Oradell is convinced her husband has been murdered by the mine bosses, but she is too young and traumatized to demand justice.
In the scene where Oradell travels alone by train to Kentucky to pick up her husband's remains, Willis powerfully conveys Oradell's vulnerability as the company henchmen dare her to open the coffin to view her husband's disfigured corpse. Though Oradell knows that "Mike would have made a speech to tell the people to get off the train and give Hell to the Bosses," she capitulates and accepts $1200 to settle the case.
In some ways, the rest of Oradell's life becomes a quest to forgive Mike for his secretiveness, which possibly contributed to his death, and also to embody his ideals by championing the working class. Yet she later says "no" to the offer of a union job and never commits to becoming an activist. To resolve her character's inner conflict, Willis creates a situation on the ship in which the wait staff is being oppressed by management. When one of the waiters, Jaime, snaps and takes a swing at the villainous manager Reese, Oradell joins in a conspiracy to smuggle him off the sip to avoid prosecution.
Though her health worsens, Oradell forgoes a chance to leave the boat to seek medical attention as part of a ruse to spirit Jaime away. She has finally taken a stand that would have made Mike proud. However, this particular plot device seems at times contrived and does not achieve the life-and-death realism that the less contemporary parts of the novel do.
On the other hand, Willis's treatment of her character's second inner conflict– an unfulfilled other/daughter relationship– plays out most satisfactorily. On the ship, Oradell befriends Tracy, a bored teenager dragged onto the cruise by her rich, manicured parents. Oradell becomes Tracy's confidante, coaching her on matters of sex and independence in ways that Tracy's own mother cannot. Tracy is transformed by her time with Oradell, and in turn, Oradell can expiate her own reckless abandonment of the baby girl born soon after Mike's death.
Oradell at Sea is an entertaining, fast-paced book that pulls the reader in. In just the first few pages, Oradell is quickly established as a likable, if all too human, character ("although she did not consider herself particularly good, she did consider herself lucky.") Further, the novel's attempts to personify issues of class are admirable and may serve to bring an understanding of Appalachian economic issues to a wider audience. Yet the book seems uneven in places, alternating between the well-crafted, riveting scenes in Appalachia and the less compelling climax aboard ship.
— Sharon Hatfield, Journal of Appalachian Studies, Volume II, Numbers 1 & 2 Spring/Fall 2005 P.283
Meredith Sue Willis moved away from West Virginia a long time ago, but like the protagonist of her newest novel Oradell at Sea, she never really left the mountains. Willis is a prolific writer. Her previous books include several novels, children's books, a collection of short stories, and three nonfiction books about the craft of writing. One of these, Personal Fiction Writing, is a wonderful resource for any writing coach, and I return to it again and again when I work with young writers. Some of my favorite exercises in the book have to do with character development.
According to Willis, the character of Oradell Greengold grew from a casual meeting with a drunk old lady, someone with whom she happened to share a dinner table years ago. In the novel, Willis has done what she recommends to beginning writers– allowed a brief encounter to blossom into a whole life history. The old lady's life sings out in flashbacks and memories as her favorite cruise ship, The Golden Argonaut, makes its way through the Panama Canal toward Puerto Rico.
For Oradell, old age is one long cruise, but neither gin nor travel can carry her away from her past. One of Willis's great gifts as a writer is to get out of the way when a character becomes unruly, and Oradell is one of the most unruly characters you'll ever meet. She embodies a popular fantasy: a rich man has died and left her a windfall, and she also has the potential to be a nightmare. She's loud, she's unabashedly crude, and she has a lot of money. For those of us who are sensitive to Beverly Hillbillies stereotypes, Willis is definitely walking a tightrope with this character.
But despite her drawbacks, or maybe because of them, Oradell is an engaging, endearing protagonist. She may be in a permanent drunken haze, but she hasn't forgotten where she came from: the coal mining town in West Virginia where her grandfather died in a mine explosion and where she met her beloved Mike Brown, the first of her husbands, whose union organizer soul lives on in Oradell. And if Oradell Greengold doesn't make you laugh out loud at least a few times– well, you should seek professional help.
For this reader, however, both the plot and the setting of the book were a bit cramped, compared to the big, bold character of Oradell. More than once I found myself wishing the ship would run aground or stop in some port where the old lady would be obliged to spill her drink, abandon her memories, and get into some real trouble.
– Colleen Anderson, WMKY Radio
To download this radio review, go to WMKY and search for "Oradell."
There have been many acts in the life of Oradell Greengold, a boozy widow whose life has become one long vacation on luxury cruise liners. The heroine of Oradell at Sea (WVU Press), a new novel by Meredith Sue Willis...crows, "It's great being rich; you can do any damn thing you please." And she does.
Told in the forthright West Virginia cadence that marks Willis's literary fiction, the novel strips away the layers of experience that Oradell has accumulated as she teams up with a sullen teen and foments rebellon by the ship's staff. Her unpropitious beginnings as an abandoned child in an Apalachian coal mining town chug insider her like a ship's engine, informing her aging heart.
— Claudia Ebeling in Bucknell World
This short, engagingly written novel is the story of a woman's journey of the self from a spunky but passive victim to a person capable of moral action on behalf of another. Willis' style is a clean, unpretentious realism with lyrical moments that bring depth and believability to her character.
-- Phyllis Ehrenfeld in The Ethical Culture Review of Books
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The most extraordinary people are the seemingly ordinary ones. Simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, Oradell is one of the best, most fully drawn characters you'll every have the privilege of meeting.
— Silas House (author of Clay's Quilt).
Oradell is a feisty, funny outspoken woman, engaging and indomitable. Bon voyage!
— Edith Konecky (author of Allegra Maud Goldman)
South Orange novelist Meredith Sue Willis' most recent offering, Oradell at Sea (Vandalia Press, 2002), is the story of a West Virginia coal miner's daughter in her old age, wealthy through marriage, widowed, spending big bucks on herself as a gin-guzzling permanent residence of a cruise ship in tropical waters. What a way to go! In spite of these limiting materials, it is a strong, solidly structured novel. The story line toys with the reader in giving almost no hint of the heights of the victories of the human spirit the old girl will achieved. Oradell at Sea, a powerful, deeply moving classic, deserves reprints, prizes and awards, and a stage or film adaptation by someone not Hollywood, someone British, French or Italian who would give the lead to Maggie Smith (Breakfast with Mussolini) if she can manage a coal town accent.
— William Robinson in The Tryout
You meet Oradell aboard her favorite cruise ship, the Golden Argonaut, but you learn how her character was formed by flashbacks that punctuate the story. She doesn't claim to be refined, addicted as she is to bright red and splashy jewelry. Oradell is herself, forged from a life of poverty where happy times were too infrequent and a bold front carried her along.
— Evelyn Ryan in The Dominion Post
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Sent by her estranged father on what she believes is a peace mission, the young desert-dweller Espera inadvertently starts a class war in the drug-torn City Built of Starships.....
...A gripping tale. I love the way the ethical imagination is torqued into a surprising, nightmarish narrative. Some of the characters are astounding– and there is the Death yaeger and his dive. It's a wonderful, dark, hope-giving book.
–Marc Kaminsky, author of The Road from Hiroshima and Daily Bread
The novel stands out because it's a story of a failed colonisation that ends with only a sliver of hope. There are no magic fixes, no lost technologies....
Farah Mendlesohn, The Inter-Galactic Playground
As soon as I finished this book, I started looking for another science fiction book by Willis. She's one of my favorite writers of Appalachian fiction, but I didn't know she wrote science fiction, too. Along with Bradbury-esque science fiction, there's a little of the "jack tale" in this journey-quest, with characters like "Big Cook," "Tiny," and, best of all, "Brash," who changes sides so often that he could be a weather vane for gauging who's winning the battle. I got a kick out of the "yeagers"--huge, flying creatures (a salute to Willis' fellow West Virginian, Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound). The links aren't as direct as in the "hunger games" series, but Willis' Appalachian links are there. I really like that this fable--in which the innocent young Seeker, Espera, manages to outmaneuver evil in the "second world"--holds mountains as places of refuge and glowworms as magically healing.
-- Edwina Pendarvis, Professor of Education, Marshall University
.... the versatile Meredith Sue Willis...has returned to writing for young adults. Her science fiction tale, The City Built of Starships (Montemayor Press), stars Espera, a girl caught up in the volatile colonization of a far planet.
-- Claudia Ebeling, Bucknell World, September 2005
The novel opens in a desert some undisclosed distance from the City Built of Starships. Espera, whom the narrative initially positions as its adolescent heroine, has been raiseed in this desert, in isolation from other humans, by her mother, Soledad, a mystic and healther....Occasionally Espera's father, Leon, visits. And then Soledad and Leon argue. Leon wishes to make "the lavender world" – also known as "the second worlds" – the possession of humans; Soledad insists that humans are guests on the world and that it is not theirs to possess. Espera is not exactrly torn between yere parents: Since Soledad has raised her, she shares her mother's ethics and values. But her father's visits bring exciteemnt into a life that revolves around her mother's meditations....
L. Timmel Duchamp, The New York Review of Science Fiction . June 2005, Number 202, Vol. 17, No. 10
After a cloistered, puritanical childhood, Espera ventures into a fallen world on a quest to redeem– or perhaps destroy– it...
-- Kirkus Discoveries
....A surprising flavor: it uses science fiction tropes and concepts convincingly, and yet it feels all the way through like fantasy! It's partly the dragonlike yaegers and the Far-Seers, familiar fantasy types, and the magical-seeming properties of the glowworm. But the binary system and the class theme of hands vs. officers are solidly science fiction, ditto people who deal with their lives by staying drugged all the time...plausible explanations for phenomena like Big Cook and the morbid flatulance and why the desert ghouls can live on so few calories, so it's hard to pin down exactly why all the characters feel to me as if they're in a fantasy.
But the cover art--starships viewed through a lavender mist--bears out the exact genre-spanning effect I'm talking about....I enjoyed it and enjoyed being puzzled by it.
-- Judith Moffett, author of eleven books in five genres, including science fiction. She has won both a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial award for the best science fiction story of the year.
Readers will love Espera. Hero. Adventurer. Readers will love the wise sayings and the wise women who say them. Here's a whole world that needs changing and this girl has a part in it. Meredith Sue Willis knows how to be wise. She knows how to write a rousing adventure story.
– Carol Emshwiller, Nebula award winner and author of Carmen Dog
.... I'm a jaded old reader of SF and it held my attention - good planet-building, a nice premise about the officers versus the hands as that evolves over time, and thank heavens someone considers that eating alien food might not be a good idea! So many books people just eat it without much thought.
I found Espera to be a strong heroine, and found the tension between her parents particularly apt for young readers who are often torn between divorced parents. They would see themselves in her.
The plot was solid and in the midst of the danger and sometimes terror humor found a place - the eccentricities of people and especially the Scion, who moves from abusive power to helplessness and then into a sort of redemption.
– Valerie Nieman, author of Neena Gathering
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"Character-driven and contemporary, the stories mirror situations we know. . . . As a writer (Willis) uses the imagination of her heart to explore her cultural heritage from many vantage points.”
-- Now and Then: The Appalachian Magazine Vol. 27, No. 2; Winter 2012
Willis’ collection of 12 short stories knits together a small West Virginia community. In “Pie Knob” and “On the Road with C. T. Savage,” we meet a married couple—Merlee and C. T.—at different stages of their relationship. A young Merlee takes care of a cancer patient when C. T. abandons her, while in another story the older Merlee witnesses C. T.’s suicide as he is engulfed in illness and old age. The Savages are mentioned in passing in “Scandalous Roy Critchfield,” which focuses on a town’s young Baptist preacher. “Tara White” deals with a runaway’s missteps into pornography and her attempts to better her life. Willis approaches heavy subjects like prostitution, prejudice, and abandonment with a direct and unsentimental tone. Her characters possess a conversational familiarity, and the reader feels absorbed into the small community that is both distinctly Appalachian and markedly universal. This finely crafted collection is worth reading twice to discover all its intricacies and connections.
— Heather Paulson, Booklist, September 15, 2010
Appalachia has long captured the imaginations of outsiders. Some writers and filmmakers have portrayed it as a backward region populated by feuding hillbillies and fanatical snake handlers. Others have glorified its folklore, handcrafts, and bluegrass music. But, as writer and West Virginia native Meredith Sue Willis points out in the afterword to Out of the Mountains: Appalachian Stories, "For better or worse, the ballads and ghost stories and material culture have become a subject of festivals, celebration, study, and collection rather than the daily life of the majority of the people." Willis' book joins Cathryn Hankla's Fortune Teller Miracle Fish, another new story collection, in providing vivid and stirring portraits of contemporary Appalachian life. Although the communities in these books retain unique customs and beliefs, their inhabitants' searches for love, meaning, escape, and identity will resonate with a broad spectrum of readers. Both authors unearth universal themes by delving into the particulars of place.
Predominantly set in fictional locales throughout West Virginia, the twelve stories in Willis' Out of the Mountains introduce a diverse cast of characters. They include a runaway who desperately attempts to find a new home after escaping the sex trade; a Jew from Queens, New York, who drives deep into Appalachia to attend the funeral of a college friend; and a PhD-wielding brother-sister pair who struggle with their hometown's homophobia and small-mindedness. The most memorable characters show up in multiple stories, providing us with not only a sense of their own evolution but also insights into the communities they inhabit.
-- Lucy Bryan Green in the Fall 2011 Georgia Review
Some years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing a short story collection by Meredith Sue Willis. In the Mountains of America provided, as the jacket copy promised, "a view of Appalachian life full of unexpected revelations." Some of those coal-camp gossips and lonely men of the hollers appear in her latest collection, Out of the Mountains: Appalachian Stories, and indeed some of the stories from that 1994 collection have migrated into this one. But like those character and those stories, this new book finds Appalachian people coming out of the past, out of the stereotypes, out of the close family ties and the constricting small towns to weave into the loose and multifarious fabric of America-at-large. "This is the story," we begin in the story "Pie Knob," an opening as traditional and as powerful as Beowulf or those Appalachian ballads of sin and retribution. This is a gathering of listeners, a community speaking with a common voice, people who know the stories and pass them around, generally adding some pointed observations:
"People in Cooper County respect education, but we're probably more interested in whether or not you're a good person.
Merlee says that's fine, how could you not agree with that, but she says she could have been a good person and never become a nurse if not for the Rosens. I needed all the help I could get, she says.
We say, No, you didn't, Merlee, you did it all by yourself. Janice, of course, adds, with the love of Jesus.
No, says Merlee, a lot of it was the Rosens."
Characters move in and out of these linked stories – the Savages, the Critchfields. I was pleased to re-encounter the religion-tormented teenager of "The Little Harlots" returning as a different kind of preacher in "Scandalous Roy Critchfield." Most of all, Merlee Savage grows through this collection, taking the stereotype of the uneducated, beaten-down mountain woman and turning it on its head. Her marriage to C.T. Savage who "liked to be footloose and fancy free, which often meant job-free and away from home" has brought her to the anticipated end, stuck in a trailer with the babies … but like a rock climber in a tough spot, she flings out her raw-boned limbs and finds a new purchase-point. In "Pie Knob" she begins her emancipation to "Merlee Savage, Registered Nurse" when she takes on the task of caring for a professor's wife suffering through breast cancer treatments. She is tempted more than once, by a pretty necklace, by the professor himself – indeed, she says that she "developed a crush on them both." But she returns the necklace and passes through the fire of sexual temptation to be rewarded with the wherewithal to finish school. She returns in "On the Road with C.T. Savage" to stand by her man in his last days, providing him with this final loving benediction, "Goddamn you, C.T. Savage."
The tropes of Appalachian fiction – God-fearing piety, homecomings to funerals, that good woman standing by her bad man – are picked up, examined, and put back with care – usually upside down. Nowhere is this more evident that in "Big Boss Is Back," where a woman asks to have her breasts removed because they trouble her husband, who has returned. Big Boss is, however, dead – but his legacy of domineering and browbeating lives on, until Frankie finds a way to tame his demanding spirit. But these people of the mountains are more firmly knit into American life than their grandparents, pulled into the mainstream by television and fast food and interstate highways. College takes them away and sends them back, as does war. And the mainstream finds its way into the hills, for good or ill – whether in the form of an ambitious pornographer recruiting street kids for an interracial epic, or of a young woman who becomes more a part of New York City's Jewish community than the members of that community themselves.
Meredith Sue Willis has made a name as a teacher and writer about teaching, as a writer of young adult fiction and novels for adults. In this collection she stakes out the high ground, opening with a tale that interweaves the lives of anarchist Emma Goldman as she passes through the mountains on her way to prison, painter Gustav Klimt, and her own grandmother standing fast in the raw highlands of Bold Camp. The people of Appalachia, she reminds us, were the restless souls who made their way into the mountains, and whether they stay or move on, their spirits are not tied down.
I admired Meredith Sue Willis's earlier short story collection, In the Mountains of America, a marvel of craft, voice, humor, and deep knowledge of a people and a place—the mountains of Appalachia. Picking up her recent collection, Out of the Mountains: Appalachian Stories, I had misgivings. It can be difficult for a writer so profoundly rooted in a place to move on and, in a sense, grow up. In this collection, however, Willis has made the transition, writing stories that mirror the changes that have taken place in the world she knows: some leave the mountains or simply change their ways, while others enter for the first time.
Indeed, as Willis writes in an afterward, one of her specific aims with this book is to consider these movements. While one element of her heritage is the "folk culture" of "quilts and ballads of vengeance, banjo picking and rush-bottomed chairs rocking on front porches," she writes, this is only one element and increasingly a part of the past (167).
The stories seek to explore the region and the people as they are now, examining "what Appalachians retain and take along when they leave home. . .and also what Appalachian attitudes and insights contribute to the larger culture"(167). In the story "Pie Knob," we see an example of the intersection between mountain ways and the wider world. Here, the mountain woman Merlee Savage goes to work for an academic couple from Washington, D.C., who have, to the puzzlement of the locals, built a vacation home up on one of the ridges. Merlee—who appears in several of the stories and is one of Willis's best characters—has been more or less deserted by her husband C.T., a man whose invitations to go motorcycle riding are nearly impossible to turn down, who "doesn't have a mean bone in his body" but who, like all the Cooper County Savages, is known to be "hard on women" (14).
Merlee has raised the kids on her own and has fought hard to become a registered nurse. She is now engaged to take care of Mrs. Rosen—yes, in addition to being academics from the city, they are Jewish—who comes to the vacation home to recuperate from vicious bouts of chemotherapy. Unheard of as the Rosens are in their views and their ways, Merlee "develops a crush" on both of them: "They were different from people she know. She loved the way Hank was always talking but managed to watch you at the same time, checking to see if you were getting the point. Merlee's mother chattered, but that was like sparrows twittering or rain falling. You didn't have to listen because it was the same thing over and over" (21).
It's a small but classic story of worlds colliding. In the end, the bright, scrappy country woman and the cultured intellectuals have found a common space that is rich and new for both.
Merlee, along with the still wild C.T., appears again in one of my favorite stories, "On the Road with C.T. Savage." Though they have been divorced for 25 years, Merlee, for all her struggles alone, has never quite gotten over that "motorcycle-riding, engine repairing wild boy with a crooked grin" (46). One day, C.T. shows up on her doorstep, struggling for breath. Having spent years as a nurse in West Virginia, Merlee knows the last stage of lung disease when she sees and hears it. "Hey, Merlee," he finally manages, "come and take a ride to Canada with me." C.T. knows how bad off he is, but he wants Merlee to accompany him on one last trip to a lake somewhere, if not Canada, then Maine, a lake so smooth "you can't tell the difference from the real shore and sky and the sky and shore in the water. There C.T., says, he will "just lean back and ease down, sky, water, it's all the same, me and the boat"(51). Merlee replies, "Goddamn you, C.T. I'm not going to be your nurse!" (51).
But they've known each other a long time. They haven't exactly grown old together, and C.T. hasn't exactly grown up. Still. In this world, while some things change, deep-rooted connections between people endure. So Merlee, against her better judgment, goes with C.T. on one last ride. In the last line of the story Merlee rehearses what she'll say at his funeral if people look at her funny. That's simple. She'll say, "Goddamn you, C.T. Savage" (57).
While the theme is always the movement in and out of the mountains, the twelve stories in Out of the Mountains, demonstrate a far wider range than those in the previous collection. In the ambitious first story, "Triangulation," Willis juxtaposes three figures born the same year: anarchist Emma Goldman, painter Gustav Klimt, and the narrator's grandmother, a woman sent to boarding school for a term where she "picked up ideas about gracious living and the world beyond the mountains"(2). In "Tara White," a young white girl who finds herself acting in low-budget porn movies, tries desperately to attach herself to the family of a church-going black woman, the mother of another of the actors. And in the autobiographical-feeling, "Evenings with Dotson" a mountain girl is visited at her college in New York City by a boy from home, a flier now and on his way to Vietnam. The argue about the war and spend the night together, both seeming to know he'll never make it back to the mountains.
-- Diane Simmons, Appalachian Journal: A Regional Studies Review, Volume 39, Numbers 1-2, Fall 2011/Winter 2012, p. 179.
“Character-driven and contemporary, the stories mirror situations we know. . . . As a writer (Willis) uses the imagination of her heart to explore her cultural heritage from many vantage points.
-- Now and Then: The Appalachian Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 2; Winter 2012
In the mountains, people face problems not too unlike everyone else's. "Out of the Mountains: Appalachian Stories" is an anthology of short fiction focused on the Appalachian region and the challenges of mountain life. From the social issues that face people far from cities to environmental concerns like mountain top removal, Meredith Sue Willis paints an intriguing picture of modern day Appalachia. "Out of the Mountains" is a fine collection of short fiction, recommended.
(to read the whole review, click, then search for "Willis" or scroll down)
The broadest array of people and situations make up this rewarding collection of Appalachian stories; a few of them don't even take place primarily in Appalachia. Nothing is static or predictable here: there are the people who move in and those who leave, town folk and mountain folk, women who make shopping runs to Manhattan and those who rarely leave the house, liberal-lefties and evangelicals--though sometimes, in Willis's nuanced world view, the evangelicals turn out to be kind of lefty also. Willis is a lively and humane storyteller who can take on tricky political and religious material without derailing a narrative. All the stories are fine ones, but the standouts for me are "Triangulation," a moving meditation on the big and small actors in history, "Tara White," and two Vietnam tales, "Nineteen Sixty-Nine" and "Evenings With Dotson." Short story lovers have a great pleasure coming their way.
— Pamela Erens
Part of the Ohio University Press's series in race, ethnicity, and gender in Appalachia, Meredith Sue Willis's collection of short stories, Out of the Mountains, captures visions of life in the rural hills of West Virginia. The twelve stories contained in this volume offer a full range of emotions, from heavy sadness and defeat to joy and rebirth, as well as a full range of characters and even—remarkable for a book defined by place—a pleasant variety of settings.
Character is the strength of this collection, and the strongest in an impressive set of individuals is Willis's Appalachian nurse, Merlee Savage. A divorced single mother struggling to raise two children and earn her college and nursing degrees, Merlee defines the toughness and resilience of a contemporary Appalachian woman. She is featured in several stories in the volume and comes into contact with the other, outside world (New York City) in "Pie Knob" as well as the other, older world of West Virginia in "Big Boss is Back." In all of these situations, Merlee embodies the resoluteness of the region, as she says, "I've never especially cared for the kind of people who go around having conversion experiences every couple of years, whether it's religion or hair color. People ought to have some consistency, in my opinion." But consistency does not equate with boredom or even with routine in Willis' stories, and the characters are forced to grapple with life-changing events as well as their own human nature. Again, Merlee says it best as she describes herself, as well as many other characters in the stories: "One of the things I've always been good at is convincing myself I'm doing one thing while I'm really doing another."
Merlee's statement is true not just for herself, but for the West Virginia region where these stories are set. Willis is masterful in her ability to present a place that is constantly walking the fine line between past and future, and finding itself always uncomfortable in the present. As she says herself in the collection's afterword—a short section that is, in some ways, as enjoyable as the stories—the Appalachian region is "about a lot more than whittling and feuding."
Review by Alex Myers, New Pages. Full Review Here.
Pick up this book and read it a story at a time. Meet Willis' people and understand the issues they face. You won't be the same after you do
-- Greg Langley, Books Editor, Baton Rouge Advocate. Full Review here.
Meredith Sue Willis writes sparkling, masterful stories, grounded in the wisdom of place, musical in their voices and cadences, and truly joyful in their understanding of the power of words. Reader, enter in!
—Jayne Anne Phillips (author of Lark and Termite)
The words have a precision to them, swift and clear and vivid, infinitely correct brush strokes that make tiny adjustments to the color of the story. And there is not a wasted word. You think you aren’t reading about Appalachia, but you are. Without your knowing, Meredith Sue Willis paints Appalachia on your heart.
— Lee Maynard (author of The Pale Light of Sunset)
Critics have commented on Meredith Sue Willis's accomplished voice and craft in evoking the deeply felt experiences of people hailing from Appalachia. Less commented on is her humor, and in particular the humor that arises out of the collision of geographies and traditions. In "Elvissa and the Rabbi," my favorite story in Willis's latest collection "Out of the Mountains," is a tour de force: how the daughter of an Elvis-obsessed West Virginian falls in obsessive love first with New York city, then its elderly Jews among whom she works, and then finally with a young Jew, and then a rabbi no less. How she learns Yiddish and becomes uncomfortable with her own family speaking of Jesus in the way that didn't acknowledge that he after all was a rabbi too is an arc worthy of a novel compressed into the tensile beauties of a short story. Talk about a tale appropriate for the season!
— Allan Appel (author of The Hebrew Tutor of Bel Air )
The striking thing about the 12 linked stories in Meredith Sue Willis' "Out of the Mountains" is that they are full of the spirit of Appalachia but empty of cliches about that much-maligned region. Yes, there are coal mines and fundamentalist religion and old-time misogyny, but we also see anarchist Emma Goldman passing by on her way to federal prison in 1918, a young man taking a girl up in a plane above New York City before he goes off to Vietnam to be killed, urban Jews settling in West Virginia and finding ingenious and sometimes humorous ways of coexisting with the locals, a teen-age girl discovering unexpected strengths as she tries to escape from a pornography ring. Some of the stories show characters at widely separate parts of their lives. Feckless motorcyclist C.T. Savage rides away from his wife, Merlee; 25 years later, when she is a nurse and he a wreck dying from lung disease, Merlee still feels enough for C.T. to help him go out in style. As a boy, Roy Critchfield is tormented by his lust for a minister's wife and his reluctant conviction that God doesn't want him to play baseball; as an adult, though trailing a dubious reputation, Roy becomes a spiritual leader himself. In all the stories, Willis is sparing with dialect and oddity, respectful of her people. Her prose, whether she's using the first or the third person, describing the present day or times gone by, is exact, unobtrusive, often amused, always authoritative. A pleasure to read.
—Michael Harris (author of The Chieu Hoi Saloon)
The Appalachian stories in Meredith Sue Willis’s Out of the Mountains are lively, funny, and, in good mountain tradition, sometimes a little bizarre. Willis uses her characters to show the ways people work out the conflict between what they desire and what they get. Alert to the edgy personal and political tensions between ambition and reward, between longing and satisfaction, these stories offer up essential human conflicts wisely and with a lot of heart.
—Maggie Anderson (author of Windfall: New and Selected Poems)
You wish you knew the people who inhabit the stories of Meredith Sue Willis. In fact, you do know them! And Willis’s scope, from Emma Goldman to a dying West Virginian who drives his truck into a New England lake, is breathtaking.
—Denise Giardina (author of The Unquiet Earth)
Appalachian stories need not feature a “granny woman” and be set in the past. Out of the Mountains: Appalachian Stories by West Virginia native Meredith Sue Willis (published by Ohio University Press in July) is a collection to prove the point. Its thirteen stories are set in the milieu of the 21st century and explore current issues familiar not to just Appalachians but to contemporary readers every where. Her timely stories ring true and are often humorous. As Willis (who was at this year’s West Virginia Book Festival) remarks in the book’s afterword, Appalachians have more to write about than “whittling and feuding.” She is one of the true voices of Appalachia in print today.
—Phyllis Wilson Moore (Charleston Gazette Blog, 12-3-10)
These stories are memorable and moving. Meredith Sue is so adept at capturing the fine points of Appalachian culture, and she’s especially good at depicting culture clashes and the difficulties of native Appalachians who try to balance both mainstream and mountain identities. The contrasts between rural Appalachian and urban Jewish cultures are depicted very vividly in ‘Elvissa Did Not Become a Rabbi.’ The conflict between family loyalty and church-sanctioned homophobia was wonderfully portrayed in ‘Fellowship of Kindred Minds.’ Even in ‘Big Boss Is Back,’ Meredith Sue examines the cultural contrast between long-time natives of the region and newcomers. I actually taught this story in my graduate fiction workshop, and several of the students commented on the superb metaphor Meredith Sue uses when she says that ‘what Dr. and Mrs. Siefert were putting down was less like roots and more like the little feet English ivy uses to hang onto bricks.’
—Jeff Mann (suthor of Loving Mountains, Loving Men)
In Out of the Mountains, Meredith Sue Willis gives her characters the juice of life. Some turn up in more than one story, prompting the pleasure of recognition. Willis writes about people from Appalachia’s West Virginian corner, where she herself comes from, and about people from New York, where she lives now, with a smattering of folks from elsewhere. They’re all alive on the page.In one of my favorites here, “Pie Knob,” a Jewish New York couple and an Appalachian woman, whom we know from other stories, interact in complicated and intensely human ways, leaving the reader both sad and glad, the way life sometimes does....T.S. Eliot told us that “returning from our exploring” allows us “to see the place for the first time.” I think Willis could not have seen so accurately had she stayed in Appalachia. Eliot didn’t go back to St. Louis, either. What we carry with us comes in focus when we look back from a distance and it’s the looking back, I think, that Eliot had in mind.
—Jane Durrell in City Beat Cincinnati , August 11. 2010
Out of the Mountains has a feeling of memoir about it -- you get the sense that Willis' narrator is telling her own stories and the stories of people familiar to her. And indeed in the afterword, she acknowledges that some of the stories are taken from her life. The sense of intimacy and familiarity with her characters is one of the primary reasons I'm recommending the book -- getting inside people's heads this way is a favorite part of the reading experience for me. The other main thing I loved about the book was its structure, which reminded me a bit of Annie Proulx' Bad Dirt -- you meet the same characters and the same families sprawled out across different parts of Appalachia and of America, from the early 20th Century up to the early 21st. It's a broad scope for such a short book -- and I'm not meaning to say the book is encyclopædic -- but it really works, really gives you a sense of the vastness of the well of experience from which Willis' characters' particular experiences are drawn.
— Jeremy Osner, Read-in
Sir Read Alot review blog.
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Re-visions: Stories from Stories is a collection of spin-offs from myth, fiction, and the Bible. From a new look at Adam and Eve and why they left the Garden to a grown-up Topsy from Uncle Tom's Cabin to the confessions of Saint Augustine's concubine- each story offers a gloss on the original as well as insights into how we can live today.
The stories in Meredith Sue Willis’ new collection, Re-visons: Stories from Stories, will take you back to your Scripture, your Shakespeare and your Harriet Beecher Stowe.
And when you do glance back at the stories that Willis here “re-visions” you might be surprised at the way in which women figure in these well-known works from an earlier time: barely. They are most notable by their absence, granted only a shred or two of stereotypical characterization. Take for example, Martha, who appears in the New Testament, John 11-12. She is present at a quite significant moment in Jesus’s career, when Jesus raises her brother Lazarus from the dead. What on earth was Martha, as one of the first people to witness Jesus’s divine powers, thinking about all this? Well, you won’t find out from John.
In the few lines he gives her, Martha is purely practical and limits herself to women’s business of cleanliness and cooking: she advises Jesus that her brother has been dead for four days and therefore already smells. After her brother has been restored to life, we read, “Martha served” supper to a large group of followers. Meanwhile, her more extravagant sister Mary dares to lavish a whole pound of costly ointment on Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. Mary allows herself to revel in the wonder of the moment; Martha is just a drudge.
But Willis does not want to accept that Martha, the woman who does what has to be done while others dance and dream, has no rich interior life. In this re-telling, Martha still works hard, but she is no dullard and is as aware of the magical moment as the others: “And I pass out the bread, and I bake it and knead it and grind the wheat while Mary and Lazarus and all the others wait for the Nazarene, singing about how he gave everything for us, even the breath from his body. Well, it is my pride to give everything I have too, my baking, my weaving, my sweat.”
And how, Willis wonders, did Jesus feel about the woman who does not wash his feet with her “naked hair,” but who slaves over a hot stove? At one point, with everybody, including her sister Mary, gaga for Jesus and leaving all the work to her, Willis’s Martha gets fed up and tells the Lord off: “I don’t think you’re the Messiah, I think you’re preaching for free meals.”
Everyone is shocked except Jesus himself who understands her perfectly, and who comes into the kitchen and “serves” the exhausted, exasperated Martha with his own hands.
In the end, Martha—who will be ravished by Jesus along with the rest—is rewarded for her skepticism, and her practicality, even about the prospect of heaven. It is she who becomes Jesus’s confidant, who helps ground the man who is still a man and growing weary of adulation: “They want the miracles,” she tells him. “Not your light.” Down-to-earth Martha can not help adding: “if you really have any.”
Then there’s Topsy from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the African-American child who is known mostly for having no up-bringing¸ having “just growed.” Her other main characteristic is being too black for the Northern lady, Ophelia, to touch, despite abolitionist beliefs.
But for Willis, Topsy needs an interior life too; there is probably a great deal more that could be told about the relationship between the ragged girl and the principled but chilly woman. In “Miss Topsy,” then, Willis catches up with the two women many years later, as Ophelia is on her death bed in New England. Topsy, no longer young, has been Ophelia’s companion all these years and the two have lived together in Ophelia’s pretty home.
As Ophelia is dying Topsy reminisces about their life together; it has not always been smooth. Sometimes they have quarreled, Topsy wondering aloud if, instead of becoming a proper New England Christian lady, she should have stayed in New Orleans and “become a market woman with my own little children playing in my skirts.” Like any other veteran of a long relationship, Topsy knows precisely how to hurt Ophelia, who has felt guilt that, because of her, Topsy never had children of her own.
“You are free,” a grim Ophelia hits back.
Topsy stops “teasing. She tells her mentor, “I am free, but I freely owe it to you.”
It is a complicated relationship, “such different gaits,” Topsy muses, “to be yoked together.”
Still they have been yoked; perhaps, as Willis suggests, they have even lived as lovers all these years, sharing a bed and a warmth that transcends their differences. When Ophelia finally passes, Topsy will neither return to New Orleans as she has threatened, nor or go out as a missionary, as some in New England seem to think she should. Rather she will stay on in the home she has shared with Ophelia, tending the garden and going to church.
But perhaps she will make a few changes; perhaps she will “wear more yellow” than Ophelia thought proper.
In addition to Martha and Topsy, Willis takes a look inside women even less known, ones we’ve only glimpsed through a limited male gaze. One such is Claribel Queen of Tunis who has a non-role Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Why is she even mentioned? Her state wedding is the reason for the sea voyage that results in Prospero’s enemies being shipwrecked on his island.
In Willis’s hands, though, Claribel is no longer a silent little chess piece, but a real girl who loves passionately if misguidedly, who is surrounded by corruption and intrigue she cannot defeat, and who finally learns to play the game like the men do, depending primarily on “spies and eunuchs” to preside over her own affairs.
As I read Willis’s stories, I am taken aback to realize that I have read many of the texts she uses, rolling happily along on a tide of male-centricity, never giving a thought to their silenced female populations.
After reading Re-visions, I don’t think I’ll be doing that again.
Though Willis’s “revisionist” work has a political point of view, you will find no anger or dogmatism here. Rather you will find real women in the midst of busy and eventful lives, full of the energy, complexity and desire that we can all recognize. Their creation is long overdue.
— Diane Simmons in Women Writers, Women's Books
The palimpsestic and generative sub-title , Stories from Stories, says it all when it comes to the genesis of tales. There is an unbroken, though far from straight, chain of tellers and listeners, repeatedly borrowing and spending in an economy of beginnings, in principios voiced around a fire whose skyborne sparks ever dim. The debt is paid off again and again, willingly, knowing that there's no such thing as something new, but rather it's a matter of what's owed and sowed by women in the first tales to children; the real heroes' tales.
Take the case of the first speaker, Monica, Augustine's teen concubine in "Sermon of the Younger Monica," who warns her charges, "the Vandals always come." Sometimes they are in the guise of warriors, other times mobs, court plotters, or serpents (isn't there always one down the hall?)– saints even, such as Augustine, who can't let one young girl be. Good, bumper-sticker-worthy advice, from women to women everywhere, which accounts for the often minatory tenor of these nine engaging stories, narrated in the first person by women of myth and legend, with Monica succeeded by Scheherazade and others, such as Topsy from Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Of course, there's got to be Eve, smart and reckless, already bickering with Adam as to whether God is Our Mother rather than Our Father. Over by the "One Tree," she talks down the serpent:
"We're special [humans]....Everyone knows that. We're smart, we make things, and we talk."
"No they don't. Not anymore...We got smarter and they got stupider."
"They still talk. You just can't understand them."
Then, later, the serpent says:
"Who are you trying to fool? You're going to eat an apple. That's the only thing special about you and him....The One knows you're going to do it....you might as well go ahead. You really don't have any choice."
— Reamy Jansen in The Bloomsbury Review
A person's story doesn't end after one episode, so why do you expect [it] out of characters of myth and legend? "Re-visions" is a collection of short stories from Meredith Sue Willis as she speaks on many twists and turns on stories surrounding Adam and Eve to countless others as she tries to lay more reason behind the protagonists' actions and their ultimate future. "Re-visions" is an excellent pick of short fiction, an ideal addition to any general community library collection.
— Mid West Book Review, Small Press Bookwatch: November 2011
The stories were so vivid and natural that after a while I forgot of them as based on actual classic myths and felt them alive in my modern world, real as any other stories. My favorite was the one about Lazarus (for the wonderful imagery about fire and moths and desire) --but so many engaged and moved me.
— Leora Skolkin-Smith, author of The Fragile Mistress
Because most of the stories pick up half-hidden threads from ancient works, there's obviously a problem of 'translation,' of finding a voice and diction that's suitably distant but not affected or stilted. I really enjoyed your nuanced way of handling that problem: for example Monica, Martha, and Claribel not only have very different personalities but come from sharply different points in time, place, and social position -- and one feels that not only from what we know of the "facts," but more important from the way they observe the world and talk about it. I loved that!
Also, the reader is at once an intimate, almost a confidante, yet is also distinctly alien and always conscious of being so. As a result we're forced to listen with two different kinds of ears and manage a sort of double vision. I loved that too. This doubleness is more acute, and more fun, the more we're familiar with the ancient works themselves. (In "The Great Wolf" you offer a special interpretive twist and pleasure with your unspoken allusion to Shakespeare's "appetite, an universal wolf" that at last eats up itself.)
I welcomed your exploring the sexual/sensual possibilities of the semi-mother/daughter relationship in "Topsy," but I think Topsy's voice must have been an especially challenging 'translation' job, given her New Orleans background and all it represented for her -- a problem you address directly in the text. Yet toughest of all must have been trying to evoke something of Stowe's own voice, given Stowe's relative closeness to us in time and culture, and beyond that the driving and highly personal passion she brought to this particular work. I admired your way of keeping Topsy's mischief alive in her, and your handling of the final 'vision' of Eva -- a nice mix of story, wish, and dream.
— Irene Tayler, MacVicar Faculty Fellow and Professor Emeritus, MIT
A person's story doesn't end after one episode, so why do you expect as such out of characters of myth and legend? "Re-visions" is a collection of short stories from Meredith Sue Willis as she speaks on many twists and turns on stories surrounding Adam and Eve to countless others as she tries to lay more reason behind the protagonists actions and their ultimate future. "Re-visions" is an excellent pick of short fiction, an ideal addition to any general community library collection.
--- Bethany Cox
Imaginative work inspired by earlier works is a genre as old as the hills. Think Shakespeare mining Plutarch's Lives, or Jean Rhys drawing on Jane Eyre for The Wide Sargasso Sea. Meredith Sue Willis has conceived nine short stories in this vein, which are collected in the retrospective Re-Visions. Many are first-person narratives flowing from the mouths of secondary players from myths, Biblical stories, legends, and classic fiction. Here are the testimonies of the sisters of Scheherazade and Lazarus, and Claribel, fleetlingly mentioned in The Tempest. Here, too, a contemporary enactment of Baucis and Philomen, both the Ovid and Swift versions. All are highly original and rendered in Willis's signature Appalachian-inflected cadences.
T.S. Eliot, in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," wrote that every new story or poem takes its place in the context of all the stories and poems that have ever been written. An ideal reader would have read them all, yet would bring fresh appreciation to each new work. The old stories -- "the tradition" -- would set up expectations about form and content that the new story would confirm or rebel against. And the new story in turn would make us read the old stories in new ways.
In her previous work, such as the Appalachian short-story collection Out of the Mountains, Meredith Sue Willis did what fiction writers usually do: She wrote about people and a region that we already "knew" to some degree from earlier literature, the movies and popular stereotypes. Her stories gained much of their wryly humorous power from the way they played both with and against our expectations. In Re-Visions: Stories from Stories, Willis takes this process a step further: She re-tells some of the oldest and best-known stories we have, from sources that include the Bible, The Arabian Nights and Uncle Tom's Cabin, and makes them new.
The result could have been sophomoric -- too-easy debunking, cheap laughs -- but Willis avoids these pitfalls with the sophistication we've come to expect from her. (Every writer creates his or her own "tradition.") Most of these eight stories are about women in pre-feminist times. Willis doesn't create 21st-century people and insert them into costume dramas, as pop novelists and Hollywood often do. These women remain embedded in the mental atmosphere of their own times and places. Yet she somehow makes us see them in ways the original stories never intended -- whether her heroine is the legendary storyteller Scheherezade, the slave girl Topsy, St. Augustine's teen-age concubine or Martha, the practical sister of Mary and Lazarus, who has to see that the house is clean and guests are fed when Jesus comes to work a miracle.
-- Michael Harris, author of The Chieu Hoi Saloon
On the one hand, there's the much vaunted Harold Bloomian "anxiety of influence" that every writer confronts. Then there's the deep pleasure of influence, the latter very much in evidence in Meredith Sue Willis's charming Re-visions, Stories from Stories, recently published by Hamilton Stone Editions.
Willis, who for decades has created moving fictions out of lives of women from her native Appalachia most recently in her Out of the Mountains, this time has brought together a collection that rescues half a dozen women from marginal roles they played in the Bible, mythology, and other literature and brought them front and center. There's Miss Topsy from Uncle Tom's Cabin and the brave Scheherezade, and St. Augustine's concubine, whom Willis has brought to life as Monica.
My favorites are Lazarus's spunky sister Martha from the New Testament and Baucis, that arboreal spouse from Ovid and Greek mythology. In Willis's re-telling, Martha remains rooted in her Biblical world, but has a modern ironic personality that makes her totally impatient with all the "new-law" Jews, who, like Lazarus are flocking to Jesus and giving away everything in the house. Who's going to be left to earn a living? She asks.
In the case of Baucis and Philemon, the happy tale of a marriage so solid and long lasting, the couple become intertwining trees, Willis basically says: Are you kidding! She transports that story to a bench in a New York City Park, likely Queens. There our young narrator stops to stretch in her jog and becomes absorbed in the tale of an elderly shopping bag lady and her idealistic, lost husband. Yup, retirement hasn't quite worked out and in fact has turned hubby into a cranky, insufferable old bastard who has estranged their two children. He stays out at night, risks pneumonia and, yes, he's decided to become a tree. "Why don't you divorce him or just leave?" the young narrator asks. Baucis replies, "Oh I don't know. I'm going to be a tree with him for a while," she responds.
Willis's graceful talent and deep empathy makes this decision not only natural and understandable, but beautiful.
-- Allan Appel (author of Club Revelation and High Holiday Sutra) at Good Reads.
When I read a description of Meredith Sue Willis’s new book, Re-Visions: Stories from Stories, at first I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy tales which, according to the back cover, are “spin-offs from myth, fiction and the Bible.” But how entirely wrong I was. Totally absorbed, I read the volume straight through—and then returned to re-read, wondering which of my reading friends I should gift with the book.
Most of Willis’s sources are well-known, such as Adam and Eve from Genesis, Martha from the gospel story of Lazarus, Scheherazade from A Thousand and One Nights, and Topsy, the slave girl from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. However, others have been crafted from a mere mention, such as St. Augustine’s concubine Monica from the Confessions; and Claribel, Queen of Tunisia, who is briefly mentioned in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Slightly more obscure, though no less delightful were Baucis and Philemon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Willis also constructs some stories from scratch, such as “Her Statue” and “Legend of the Locust Root.” I’m glad the author felt no compunction to be a slave to her sources, often using them more as inspiration than model; some, like the Biblical tales, cleave closer to the details, while others wildly differ from their sources. Willis’s tales are as delightful as they are truly insightful in a surprising but never heavy-handed way.
The book is never preachy, as the “morals,” if any, arise organically, emerging from the mouths of believable characters. Like the eponymous protagonist of “Martha, Sister of Lazarus, “my favorite. Willis brings this fully-imagined world to life through ultra-sensory language: “I could smell . . . the perfume Mary wore, the sour breath of the wine-seller and the lactation of a Bethany woman . . .” Into this world “the Nazarene” walks. as in the gospels of Luke and John, Martha is much distracted by domestic duties and is more aggressive and questioning than her sister Mary. But Willis takes that aggressiveness much further. Throughout most of the story, Martha is not swayed by this “grave robber’s” silver tongue. Furthermore, Willis sexualizes this famous encounter, which, oddly, adds to its spiritual power. With his charisma and “glistening river of wavy hair,” Jesus easily seduces Martha’s sister Mary—as well as all the men—but Martha makes the would-be messiah prove himself to her more through his manhood than any supernatural power.
The central metaphor—Jesus as the “lover” who has spiritually impregnated Martha—is both illuminating and moving—and so apt, given how easily everyone else in the story has been seduced. Everyone except Martha, who holds out until the deeply moving conclusion. Similar sexual overtones and themes of seduction are found in “Claribel Queen of Tunis and Antonio the Usurper of Milan.” Willis’s lively tale, spun from a mere mention in The Tempest, details the nearly life-long obsession of Claribel, daughter of Neapolitan royalty, with the “corrupter” Antonio. The subject of Claribel’s great crush is the brother of the Duke of Milan, who, in Shakespeare’s play, was responsible for removing his brother Prospero to the island in order to usurp the dukedom. In Willis’s story’s present action, Queen Claribel has brought before her “a white-haired Italian galley slave” who claims to have “once preserved the honor of the Queen of Tunis.” And, sure enough, it’s the “old corrupter” Antonio from her earlier life in Naples. Before he kidnaped his brother, she had declared herself to him, on the eve of her wedding to the Lord of Tunis, whom she didn’t love, marrying only to cement trade relations between their countries.
Sexual and political stakes are raised early on. After Claribel buys the galley slave and has him brought before her, the man pets Claribel’s foot “brazenly, in full sight of the others . . .” The queen must hide both her revived interest as well as her history with the mysterious man who’s neither old nor a servant (nor, when he’s bathed, an apparent eunuch). But the big question this reader wondered was: how “corrupt” is—or was—the “silver prince of Milan”? It’s the engine that compels the narrative backward into the past, in which we find that Claribel courted death and disaster to pledge her love to Antonio on the eve of her wedding to the king of Tunis. Distraught that she will never marry Antionio, she begs him to deflower her, for “the infidel won’t buy damaged goods.” The climax is a stunner, demonstrating how both Claribel and Antonio wound up in their present circumstances and answering my initial question, expanding Antonio’s character from Shakespeare’s portrayal.
Startlingly different in every way except delight is Willis’s modern, often hilarious, re-telling of a tale from Ovid’s Tales of Metamorphoses, “Baucis and Philemon #3.” In Ovid’s fable, Hermes and Zeus find no hospitality among the corrupt townspeople until chancing into the household of the poor old couple, Baucis and Philemon. After enjoying their generosity, the gods reward them by saving them from the flood and naming them caretakers of the temple their house has now become and granting them their wish “to die together”; after a long life they sprout branches and become trees. Likewise, Willis’s story focuses on a married couple, one of whom, the husband, is in the process of trying to become a tree. Tension and humor result from point of view: a young female jogger reluctantly listens to the comic tale of woe related by an older woman she met in the park, embodying the inhospitableness of the townsfolk in the original. But Willis’s “Baucis” doesn’t require much hospitality, as she explains why she’s going now to join her husband in her quest, “to be a tree for a while.” There’s a satisfying comeuppance for the rude narrator—in the sympathetic Baucis’s eloquent description of the “raw hard thing itself,” which is her life. The reader, if not the clueless young narrator, gets the opportunity for valuable insight—and a lot of fun. “Can animals comprehend the ineluctable serenity of the tree?” says the deranged husband. “The beauty of photosynthesis, the perfection of osmosis! No pumping, heaving, killing, chewing, gulping, choking or eructing. A tree has no moving parts.” Indeed.
I’ve tried to give a taste of the enormous pleasures to be found in this slim, readable volume. The nine stories are powerful, surprising, satisfying. You’ll no doubt be as awed as I was to meet the slave-girl Topsy from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, at fifty-something, living with her teacher Miss Ophelia in Vermont. From the very first story, “Sermon of the Younger Monica,” the stage is set for an experience of exotic worlds yet down-to-earth insights. All the stories but one are told in first-person, increasing intimacy and enjoyment. Before you know it, you’ll have read the whole book. Then, perhaps as I did, you’ll want to re-read, re-vision . . .
It takes a lot of chutzpah to reinvent stories we think we already know. That’s what Meredith Sue Willis has done in this collection. Re-vsions brings to life a group of strong women, some rescued from myth, others imagined from brief mentions. In freeing them from their secondary roles, Meredith Sue Willis has created a fresh new cast of mythic women.
“The Great Wolf” takes on one of our most familiar stories. It begins with an argument between Adam and Eve over whether the One is a man or a woman. “What else could She be but a mother?” Eve asks about God. “She who brought forth everything.” “Our Father,” Adam retorts, “He displays the sky and the land before us as the peacock displays his feathers. He plants his seed throughout the earth.” “The male has nothing to do with it,” Eve says. Eve is pregnant and feisty; being full of creation makes her feel powerful. The couple is new to procreation, and not fully informed of how it works, so Eve enjoys teasing Adam. From this irreverent beginning, the story progresses to the snake and the tree of knowledge. Although we know how it will turn out, we’re surprised at unexpected twists. The knowledge she gains when she eats the forbidden fruit is far more gruesome and graphic in its horror than what we remember from the Old Testament.
Themes of sexuality and mortality show up again in “Sermon of the Younger Monica,” which gives to Saint Augustine’s anonymous concubine both a name and a voice that is wise and bitter. “I was the pear that was stolen,” she says…”We are all pears hanging by a fragile stem above our destruction. The sun shines, we are watered, we flower, and we fruit.” Not to mention, Vandals are on their way to destroy her home in Carthage. Sexuality for Monica was a destructive force—Augustine’s lust for her when she was a thirteen-year-old handmaiden in a rich household appears grotesque, and repulses her. Augustine himself seems to consider sexual desire to be a disease, an attitude that would be reflected in the Christian church for years to come. Augustine sets her up in her own house, only to reject her for celibacy and take their son away from her. Not nice.
In “Miss Topsy” Willis imagines the lives of the characters from Uncle Tom’s Cabin years after the novel ends. I confess that I haven’t read this 19th Century bestseller. However, Willis deftly fills us in on the backstory and brings us to the point when the little black girl that the white lady rescued from slavery and took home with her to Vermont is now a middle-aged woman watching her rescuer/teacher die. It turns out the two became lovers. Topsy reflects on their many years of loving and sparring, wondering if their sin will cost Ophelia her place in Heaven. Then she has a vision revealing that Heaven is a lot more fun-loving than people think, a place where hijinks and unconventional love are welcome. In all of these tales Willis is not afraid to challenge the canon.
Women are transformed from obedient daughters, helpmeets and handmaidens, to fully free, lively, sexual beings with stories of their own.
-- Deborah Clearman
ISBN 978-0-9801786-6-1 $14.95
To read a sample story, click here.
To order Re-Visions by mail from Hamilton Stone Editions, click here .
To order from Barnes & Noble, click here.
To order from Amazon.com, click here .
A NovelRead the first chapter of MSW's new Love Palace!
Just finished reading this book on my iPhone via Kindle. [It is written] with such wit and [she] brings her characters to life. They may not be people you would really want to know, but before you realize it you care about them and want to know what's next. Although a light read in many ways, the book is really about issues of the attraction of money, the role of sex and compromise, and control. The author has a wonderful way with with the English language, and her books should be a must for anyone who wants to write
Review of Love Palace by Cat Pleska at the Charleston Gazette
Christmas is coming and you're just about ready for Santa, right?
What about the aftermath, when the presents are opened, eggnog sipped, when you turn to the long stretch that is January? What to do? I suggest you consider a new read: Meredith Sue Willis' quirky, fun novel "Love Palace."
The Love Palace, a former brothel (and the name just stuck), is a settlement house for runaways, derelicts and struggling blue-color workers — anyone in need of a roof over head, a bed and some food.
Besides the resident colorful "clients," the staff is wacky in their own right, and the main character, 42-year-old Martha, arrives on its doorstep pretty down and out herself. But she's not there to ask for a meal — facing eviction when she defaults on her apartment rent after leaving her job, she's wooed by handsome, though a bit neurotic, Robby, to come to the Love Palace to be its executive director.
Jesus arranged the whole thing, he assures her. Martha is pretty sure Jesus didn't arrange anything, but nonetheless, Robby, who just turned 21, eventually becomes her lover, pulling her into a strange and intriguing life.
Willis' tone throughout the novel holds at a steady tongue in cheek, rendered with humor and irony through Martha, but the issues the characters face are consistently universal: Everyone longs for acceptance, inclusion and love, but most of all a safe place to call home. Martha turns out to be a natural at organizing the mess that is the Love Palace and the citizens there come to trust her advice.
Trouble soon comes to the renewed settlement, as no one knows, or seems to care to find out, who owns the building that houses the Love Palace.
Martha realizes, however, that discovering that person is crucial. The Love Palace is the remainder of the block that is slated for urban renewal. Knowing who owns the building means a person who could be persuaded to stop the demolition, which will leave everyone homeless again. And just who is stealing money from the Love Palace's bank account?
To deepen the mystery, a "Reverend John," who seems to adhere to Christianity "light," has a magnetic hold on everyone at the Love Palace, and, for a while, that includes Martha. His role in this needy community is unclear, yet everyone's adoration of the man, who seems like a Reverend Jim Jones at times, is enduring.
One of my favorite characters in this wild romp of a story is Martha's therapist Dr. Landowska. In serious need of counseling, Martha wails when she can no longer see Dr. L unless she pays on her considerable bill.
Her job at the Love Palace allows Martha to pay, and her counseling sessions continue. "Marta," as the doctor calls her, is one of the few characters who offers her a straight story and answers, sometimes much to Martha's chagrin. It's through Dr. L that we hear Martha's deepest fears and hear about her troubled past, which led directly to her conflicted life.
Despite her low self-esteem, Martha is revealed as a strong character, who nevertheless complains constantly and strongly rejects her role as leader. As I read, I began to wonder if there was a Martha in history or Scripture that this character is modeled on. When I looked up information on Martha from the Bible, I discovered her name is actually translated from Marta, as Dr. L referenced Martha.
Then in The Good News Magazine, I found an article about Martha and Mary, sisters who were friends of Jesus.
In "Love Palace," Martha has a sister named Mari. The article describes the two biblical ladies' personality traits, which loosely link to Willis' fictional characters.
At the end of the book, I was reluctant to leave this misfit family, and Martha in particular. She seeks to belong, in the same endearing way we all do. Then, too, the novel is at times a bit spicy (it is a "love" palace after all). Such spice might just warm your toes on a cold, bleak January day.
Willis, a native West Virginian, has lived in New Jersey for many decades, but she hasn't lost the Appalachian talent for telling a good tale nor how to capture a reader with an original story of love.
Cat Pleska is a writer, educator and publisher. She is the president of Mountain State Press and an essayist at West Virginia Public Radio. Her website is www.catpleska.com, and she can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- See more at the Charleston Gazette.
"We're in the Limina," says John King, the handsome, charismatic spiritual advisor to staff and clients at Love Palace, once a strip club now a community center/settlement house that seems doomed to fail. The waterfront neighborhood around the Love Palace is being razed and the tenants forced to make way for expensive new buildings and rich new tenants. For the neighborhood and the people in it, things are in flux. Everything seems to be, as John says, at "a threshold, a moment between time."
This is certainly true for Martha, 42 years old, "alone and lonely, chronically underemployed," maxed out on her credit cards, and behind on payments for her apartment. After she tells off her boss, who's arrears in paying her salary, she quits her job, and holes up in her apartment, consoling herself with pizza, buffalo wings, and spaghetti. Having eaten up the food in her apartment, Martha splurges at an expensive restaurant, where she meets Robby over her Eggs Benedictine with Canadian bacon. She strikes up a conversation with him and finds Robby, who's good-looking, winsome, well-built, and half her age (her car is older than he is), has problems of his own. After a few minutes of conversation, Robby asks Martha to marry him. Flattered, but judging him a sweet fruitcake, Martha takes him home—just for the night, she thinks.
Her plan goes awry, but in a good way. Due to this chance meeting, Martha ends up at the Love Palace, with a job and new living quarters. There she meets Robby's friends, intriguing characters like the Good News Crew, a Christian rock band; a young runaway; Black Frank; White Frank; an eccentric cook; and John King, the guru the whole group adores.
Some of the story is told through Martha's sessions with her therapist, a peroxide-blonde called Madame Landowska. We learn about Martha's low self-esteem and her tendency to try to escape anxiety by having sex with different men. Adding to her problems is her feeling of guilt because she can't bring herself to visit Nana, her grandmother, who has had a stroke and is in a nursing home on the brink of death.
Nana, who raised Martha and her younger sister, Mari, had belonged to the Old Left and worked to overcome economic injustice. She's at the heart of one of the major themes in this story, the theme of social responsibility and the questions of who will take up the traditions of working to change things for the better and what how are those traditions changing. One of the first people Martha meets in her new neighborhood is Ace, once a Black Panther, now continuing his work for social justice through tenant organizing in the Waterfront District neighborhood.
Love Palace treats basic human issues like sexuality, class conflict, religion, family conflict, and death with the currency, seriousness, and humor they deserve. Fans of Willis's Oradell at Sea will love this story, and readers who like this story should read Oradell at Sea. Both books feature a smart, good-hearted woman with a slightly checkered past at the center of a small but important struggle against heavy odds, and both books show Willis's page-turning story-telling comedic talent at its tough and gentle best.
— 5 star review by Eddy Pendarvis at Good Reads
Love Palace made me realize that a good novel opens like life—with innumerable paths spread out before you….and the reader is eager to follow Martha’s.
—Rebecca Kavaler, award winning author of the Further Adventures of Brunhild, Tigers in the Wood, and Next of Kin.
I adored Martha's disarming honesty and the way she not only acknowledges, but flaunts both her physical and moral imperfections. After failed, somewhat desperate attempts to find her identity, she becomes the female protagonist of a genuine midlife crisis, ending up in the middle of a colourful selection of equally lost characters. She may not fully comprehend what goes on in the cult-like environment controlled by a charismatic scoundrel, but this is where she finally understands that she needs to stop running in order to be able to live and enjoy her life. Slowly, but surely, overcoming temptation, hesitations and self-destructive impulses, she manages to face her problems and take control of her existence. Aside from anything else, Love Palace is a great reminder of the fact that it's never too late to start over, to reorganize your life and some risks are worth taking in the process.
—5 stars from Sieglinde22 at Smashwords
A voluptuous body, a turbulent childhood with a father she knew as "Rotter," and a mother who went through frequent "rhinestone cowgirl" phases have left Martha, the narrator of Meredith Sue Willis's new novel, The Love Palace, a little sex addicted and generally dysfunctional, problems she discusses with her therapist. She also participates in a therapy group where there is "a pretty up-front competition over who was the most self-destructive." And now, just in time for her forty-second birthday, she has lost her longtime boyfriend and her job. Furthermore, she can no longer go to therapy, as she owes her shrink, Madame, too much money.
All of this has resulted in a spell of agoraphobic, at least until the food in her apartment runs out. Buoyant even at the worst moments, Martha muses, "There is something really satisfying about sinking to the bottom like this. I had the image of myself as a girl in a swimming pool, sunny day, shallow end, warm water." But the spaghetti and margarine are eventually gone and Martha ventures out in her car, "Guzzler the Heap," a vehicle that may not be attractive but that has "an engine that will still turn over after nuclear war."
And now things begin to happen quickly. At a bar she meets twenty-one year old Robby, a gorgeous rich boy (he drives a red Miata) whose horror over his homosexual proclivities have resulted in a suicide attempt. He is too young and too good-looking but Martha feels "a familiar rising tide, the beginning of something. An adventure. A lovely, self-destructive adventure. . .Pick up a baby stranger! Feel totally s----! Adelante! Yes!"
On the other hand, maybe it really is a good idea, the opposite of self-destructive: "I decided if I could get Robby to come home with me, my luck would change. I would make the phone calls. I would have a job within a week." Then she'll lose the five pounds she has recently picked up and full of self-confidence will "bid farewell to Madame and the group forever." Robby and Martha do indeed go to bed and soon Robby, despite Martha's amused protestations--she's old enough to be his mother though she would like to be able to afford health insurance--is insisting that they get married. Robby is in the process of being "saved" at the Love Palace, an establishment on the wrong side of the Hudson where a charismatic leader, John, ministers to lost children like Robby as well as to the poor of the community, many of whom are being displaced by the gentrification. Robby, certainly, is less lost than some, at least financially; in fact, his parents are underwriting the Love Palace. But there are complications; his brittle, suburban mother appears to be having a relationship with John. His father, meanwhile, is behind the gentrification that is tearing up this New Jersey neighborhood. Robby insists that Martha too will be saved at the Love Palace, and soon she finds herself living on the premises and undertaking to put the office and what appear to be rather irregular financial affairs in order. She finds that she is more functional than she thought, and that she likes being "part of something."
She also finds that, like everyone else, she has a crush on the handsome, rather mysterious leader, John, even though as a former English major, she notices that some of his seemingly original pronouncements have been lifted from books. She has a fling with John, a problem since Robby is more and more in love with her and completely serious about marriage. Furthermore his parents are pushing for it, seeing Martha as the solution to Robbie's problems. And they are willing to pay.
Though there are real issues here, for Martha and Robby as well as for this gentrifying community, Willis floats her story on Martha's witty, often hilarious narration. Down, but never quite out, she is usually ready to view her situation with a what-the-hey shrug.
The one thing that really gets her down is when Robby's mother "surprises" Martha by redecorating her apartment, replacing her shabby possessions with expensive, color coordinated furnishings: "fresh white paint and refinished floors. An Oriental area rug in browns and pinks under the ottoman, track lighting and pillows, real oil paintings abstracted flowers and vaguely southwestern landscapes also in the carpet colors." Robby's mother--or, as Robby suggests, probably her maid--has gone through Martha's drawer, folding her socks and underwear. Martha had been through a lot but the upper middle class make-over is finally too much: "Where are my jelly glasses?. . .What about my brand new toilet seat cover? . . .High handed control freak! I mean, How dare she? What if I was allergic to golden oak?"
Willis, a West Virginia native transplanted in New Jersey, is the author of many books including the fine collection of stories, In the Mountains, and the novel, A Space Apart, set in a West Virginia parsonage. In Love Palace, as in the earlier novel, Willis closely observes--often on the end of a skewer--the doings of do-gooders, a group that seems to have a bit more than its share of nuttyness. Further, Willis has a near perfect ear for the way real people talk, and Martha's ironic commentary on the Love Palace, John, Robby's Jersey-rich parents and even herself is, alone, worth the price of admission.
Love Palace is a pageturner, in the voice of Martha, a savvy, funny woman of forty, who starts from down and almost out: "Just one more one-night stand. I've done everything else, eaten badly, gotten my therapist mad at me, rent due. I'll take one more step down before I go job hunting. Pick up a baby stranger! Feel totally shitty! Adelante! Yes!" The baby stranger, who turns out not to be so strange, nor such a baby, is the first of a cast of diverse characters Martha connects with, all well-drawn and compelling. They include a charismatic preacher and con artist, a former Black Panther supporting a group of tenants whose building is threatened, several recovering or indulging alcoholics, and the wealthy donors who fund Love Palace, the community center where Martha ends up. Martha's psychoanalyst, Madame Landowska, complete with Viennese accent, may be my favorite character: scolding, conservative, kind, beautifully dressed. What keeps the reader turning pages is Martha, endlessly sassy and smart, often impulsive, sometimes unbearable, but in the end rendering the people around her with sympathy and complexity.
— 5 star review on Amazon.com
This character Martha is so genuine. Every thought and every spoken word rings true.
—Shelley Ettinger, whose work has been published in Newtown Literary, Mississippi Review, Blithe House Quarterly, Lodestar Quarterly Snow Monkey and many other places.
I'm a Willis fan. I enjoy her humor as well as her well developed characters and realistic dialogue. LOVE PALACE is an upbeat novel with some kooky characters taking issue with uban renewal. The novel opens with one of the characters,a slightly ditzy middle-aged woman, embarking on a new life. Rather by accident, she picks up a born-again-Christian in a local bar. Young and good looking, he lives and works at the Love Palace, a religious mission-like place under threat of demolition. He is concered he is gay and wants to disprove it. She is looking for a new love and a job. Together they become involved in more ways than one. First as lovers then in saving the LOVE PALACE. Along the way they work with charlatans, booze hounds, teen run aways, and a host of neighborhood characters. The realtionships in this novel are well drawn: Sibling rivalry; teen angst,dominering mothers; absent fathers. LOVE PALACE was a pleasure to read and enjoy.
—"Phyllis's Reviews" 5 Star Review on Good Reads
Meredith Sue Willis turns her considerable talents to explore a new part of the world: the downtrodden New Jersey waterfront undergoing a radical Gold Coast transformation. In LOVE PALACE Willis has created a memorable cast of characters and a pitch perfect sense of place. The tale of a quixotic battle against redevelopment is narrated by an unlikely heroine. Martha Miller is neurotic, over-educated, under-achieving, over-libidoed, and in a tailspin over being left by Rotter number 3, her long-term boyfriend. (Rotter number 1 was her father; Rotter number 2, her ex-husband). Martha suffers from agoraphobia and low self-esteem, but one thing she's good at is attracting men and enjoying sex. A man/boy half her age (twenty-one), devastatingly good-looking, and sexually conflicted picks her up at a bar and takes her home to Love Palace. From then on the novel is a wild rollicking ride.
The cast of characters includes: the young runaways and homeless addicts who inhabit Love Palace; the soon-to-be-evicted tenants including a former Black Panther, who live next door; the charismatic cult leader John whose need to connect with everyone includes having sex; Robby, the man/boy who uses Jesus to fight his homosexual attractions and asks Martha to marry him on their first date; Robbie's wealthy parents whose church supports Love Palace, where the John preaches while seducing Robbie's mother; Martha's communist Jewish grandmother who raised her and is dying in a nursing home; Martha's therapist, Madame Landowska, who insists on payment to continue treatment but comes to Martha's wedding ("I adore weddings," she tells Martha, "They represent hope for the future."); and more. These characters come alive as an incredible range of vivid individuals each with their own flaws and yearnings, seen through the sharp eyes of the empathetic narrator.
It is Martha's ability to sympathize with even the creepiest characters which gives nuance to what is essentially a morality tale: pitting the disenfranchised poor against the steamroller of capitalism. Who is stealing money from Love Palace's bank account? Will Martha and Robbie's unlikely marriage work? Can the little guy ever win? We are propelled through action-packed scenes to an unexpected and satisfying conclusion. If at times the personalities are so large that they verge on caricature, they are redeemed by the deftness of the author's touch.
— Deborah Clearman, 5 star review on Amazon.com
Wonderful writing-brilliantly drawn characters. Funny and poignant at the same time. Martha is full of sensuality, with an ironic and wary eye on her immediate circumstances and at the same time she is reflective and circumspect. Enjoyable read.
— Mitch Levenberg, 5 star review on Amazon.com
The characters in "Love Palace" were all seriously flawed--like many of us in real life. I saw the preacher for the creep he was right away and had the feeling the protagonist knew John's flaws too but didn't quite want to believe it because he was handsome and charming. Besides, Martha always picks the wrong men. And boy, does she pick the wrong ones in this book! Marrying Robby? The reader KNOWS it isn't going to work, and even Martha knows it. What I like about the novel is that I could relate to Martha's getting on board the train she knows is going to wreck. We all do it sometimes. There's something hopeful about it--that it will turn out okay this time even when we know it really won't.
— Donna S. Meredith, 5 star Amazon review
Between husbands, lovers, and jobs, a kooky woman meets a handsome young born-again-Christian in a local bar. He he is both wealthy and confused about his sexuality. The two become a pair and he sets out to help her find a job and get her life in order. Their first stop is his place of employment, LOVE PALACE, a rather mission-like place for the down-and-out and wayward. The story combines fuzzy family relationships, sibling rivalry, con artists, and the helping professions in a humorous mix. Never one to ignore her West Virginia bible belt origins, Willis creates "big city" characters with West Virginia roots, complete with an activist Jewish grandmother languishing in a nursing home, an off-beat working class mother, an absent father, and a sparring sister. As one expects with a Willis novel, the well-developed characters are slightly off kilter but are treated fairly: Charlatans are charlatans, domineering mothers are domineering, but none are unredeemable. The novel takes a look at the issue of urban renewal without being preachy. The humorous take on life is refreshing and the dialogue is spot on.
—P.J Moore 5.0 out of 5 stars Amazon
Buy from your favorite bricks-and-mortar bookstore or from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or from Hamilton Stone Editions directly at Orders.
ISBN: 978-0-9836668-5-1 Cost: $16.95
OR-- Click on the e-book format of your choice: Kindle, Nook , iBook , or All Digital formats $4.99
(Or visit the publisher's page at Montemayor Press)
Marco and Tyrone live in a poor urban neighborhood , with deserted buildings, drug dealers, and gangs. Marco navigates his way through with help from his mother, his uncle, and a growing belief in himself. He passes on that sense of confidence and self-worth to Tyrone through their strong friendship. The characters are strong and likable; the setting is believable; and the story is both exciting and thoughtful. Willis gives her readers a sense that each person has "super powers," but she never resorts to simplistic solutions for complex problems.
-- The Horn Book
In this appealing novel, narrated by the title character, we're never quite sure where Marco's superpowers end and his imagination begins. Can Marco fly?...Can he see the future? Unfortunately, what he can't do is avoid Tyrone, the bully at his new school....Marco's earnest voice convinces us that it doesn't matter if his superpowers are real or not–it's really the powers of friendship, trust, and imagination that count.
-- ALA Booklist.
A promising debut with this tale of a clever young peacemaker in a rough neighborhood.
-- Kirkus Reviews
If you haven't gotten your hands on Meredith Sue Willis' "Marco" books(for kids) DO! I bought The Secret Super Powers of Marco (and its sequel) to give to my 9 year old grand-daughter and, as fate would have it, I neglected to send them to her. I just found them in my "gift shelf" and decided to read The Secret Super Powers. It's swell! Marco, a street-smart kid of 9, knows how to handle himself in a tough world and not only keeps himself safe in his bad-ass neighborhood but sees a decent future for himself and his friends and family. Can't wait to read the sequel!
– Rosalie Sussman
A fast moving story.
— Children's Book Review Service, Inc.
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To order online, click on The Secret Super Powers of Marco
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(Visit the publisher's page at Montemayor Press)
Marco's Monster has been Included in a list of
"100 of the Decade's Best Multicultural Read-Alouds"
at the Reading is Fundamental site.
In a sequel to The Secret Super Powers of Marco, Marco and his best friend Tyrone participate in the annual fourth-grade class play, this year called "Cool Girl and the Main Monster." Marco is the narrator and keeps the play on track, just as he keeps life on track for his little sister Ritzi and for Tyrone. Tyrone, the "Main Monster," works to stay in the play in spite of his penchant for getting into fights with classmates. There is a great deal of action in this short novel, and several themes that Willis neatly pulls together in the conclusion. Tyrone sometimes feels as if the Monster inside him is taking over, but with Marco's help, Tyrone takes the first steps toward managing his anger. Both boys must deal with the realities of living in a run-down urban neighborhood, in which empty buildings are sites for drug deals and the local park holds more dangers than pleasures. Ebullient characters, a fast-moving plot, and a realistic setting all contribute to Willis's lively, sometimes poignant story.
-- The Horn Book
Fourth grader Marco wants the part of the Main Monster in the play his class writes. But his teacher, Mr. Marshan, assigns him the role of Narrator and gives Tyrone, Marco's best friend, the coveted part. Marco, so jealous he feels like a monster is inside him, provokes a fight with Tyrone. When Tyrone accepts the blame for the fight, Marco is caught in a string of problems that the two boys resolve together. Quirky and funny, with unforgettable characters– like little sister Ritzi, a prodigy who plays operating room on her Barbies– this short, deftly plotted novel will hold everyone's interest.
-- Instructor Magazine
The two friends from The Secret Super Powers of Marco are back. Their fourth grade class is putting on a play....Marco is sure he will be the Main Monster but the role goes to Tyrone and Marco is cast as the narrator. The two boys and Marco's little sister, Ritzi, are engaging characters set in a sometimes unpleasant inner-city reality. They face a variety of unsavory people, including street thugs, Crazy Wee-wee (a local homeless person), and a substitute teacher who accuses Ritzi of killing the class gerbil. Throughout the traumas, the play progresses. The performance is a definite hit, complete with the appearance of Tyrone's mother, who never comes to school....This quick, easy read is full of humor and angst, and features a strong single-parent family, a theater experience, and lots of adventure.
-- School Library Journal
See commentary also on "The Power of Story" Blog
To order online, click Marco's Monster.
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Thoughtful books are not always entertaining, and entertaining books are not always thoughtful, but this book merges both into a joyful look at family, friendship, and race. Eleven-year-old Billy Lee and her family live in a rickety house on the edge of a marsh, amid freeway overpasses, power lines, and old warehouses. Billy's father, an artist who suffers from a debilitating disease, is African American. Her mother, who makes African robes and bakes sunflower seed cookies, is white. Billy has never met any of her mother's family, until one day when a cousin invites her for a visit. The conflicting pulls that Billy feels between loyalty to her best friend, Eutreece, and a desire to befriend her "new" white cousin, Celia, set Billy pondering questions of race in a unique and concrete way that will inspire young readers to ask their own questions. If she is half-white and half-black, Billy wonders, what does her white side feel like? Does it feel different from her black side? What an interesting way to frame this issue—placing the essence of racial conflict inside a single character allows Willis to explore these questions in a nuanced, non-pedantic way. Billy's voice is as fresh and interesting as her story. Children of all races will find both humor and understanding—as well as plenty to ponder —in Billy's open, enthusiastic approach to life. This book would be an excellent choice for book clubs and classroom discussions.
-- Barbara Carroll Roberts, The Critics Children's Literature
Biracial Billie Lee leads a harmonious life in a funky New Jersey neighborhood until her white cousin comes to town. There’s that, and a mysterious neighbor alerts her inner detective. Billie Lee’s an appealing problem solver.
– Claudia Ebeling, Bucknell World Vol. 34 No. 4
...I was surprised by many aspects of this contemporary children's book. Beyond the obvious (knowing references to illicit drug use), it is far grittier -- and far more richly imagined -- than most of the kids'-lit I recall from my own childhood. (The protagonist lives under a highway near a disused canal, for instance.) At times, as in a dreamlike episode during which two pre-teens very calmly take a car from the garage of a parent and drive around the neighborhood at night, BILLIE OF FISHHOUSE LANE transcends the genre altogether, bringing to mind great books about children for adults such as THIS BOY'S LIFE by Tobias Wolf and Jamaica Kincaid's ANNIE JOHN. Recommended.
-- Adam Sexton, author of Master Class in Fiction Writing: Techniques from Austen, Hemingway, and Other Greats
I love Darling Billie and her father. She's an appealing character and has a strong voice. I was drawn in, too, by the realistic but non-violent problem of racial bias and how you punctured all the sterotypes. And Celia was so funny! I'm glad she turned out to be OK. (I also like the undercurrent of humor that flows throughout the novel.) I'm also glad the father didn't die. Billie's vision and how she kept her daddy from dying--I believe that actually happens sometimes.
-- Llewellyn McKernan
Smart, sassy, and eleven years old, Billie Lee lives with her eccentric family in a home on Fish House Lane. Her dad is an African American artist who carves tree trunks into sculptures; her mom, who's white, sews African-style robes that she sells at the Boutique Afrique. Billie loves her parents, her two younger brothers, and her know-it-all best friend, Eutreece, and she feels completely at home in her swampy neighborhood under an elevated highway in New Jersey.
Then Billie's white cousin, Celia, shows up and changes everything. A sleepover at Celia's fancy suburban home releases a flood of questions. How can Billie be Black but also White? How can she convince Eutreece that Billie hasn't betrayed their friendship? And, when these kids get thrown together at Fish House Lane's summer barbecue, how can Billie and her friends accept one another long enough to solve the mystery of a neighbor named Neighbor, who has hidden something strange—and maybe dangerous—down by the canal?
The answers to these questions challenge Billie far more than she ever thought possible.
-- Publisher, Montemayor Press
To order online, click Billie Of Fish House Lane.
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Books about Writing and Teaching
Publishing HIstory: Personal Fiction Writing was first published in 1984, and has been in print constantly since that time. In the year 2000, it received an updated and expanded edition.
I have read Personal Fiction Writing with both pleasure and enthusiasm....This book has something for teachers at all levels....It contains many useful suggestions for helping students...and it's easy to use.
-- Editorial Board, National Council of Teachers of English
A terrific resource for the classroom teacher as well as the novice writer.
-- Harvard Educational Review
When I was a senior in high school I decided to take correspondence courses instead of attending a regular school. This was the text used for my creative writing class. I absolutely loved it and have been trying to snag a copy of it ever since. This book is GREAT at giving you ideas for how to make up your own work of fiction even if you never tried before. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in seeing where their imagination can take them.
-- Marsha A. Kyrmse
Writing samples, ideas for invention, describing people, places, action, developing structure, revision - all ages and skill levels.
-- Shevi Arnold "Best How-To Books for Writing Fiction"
To order from the publisher, click on Teachers & Writers.
To order from Amazon.com, click on Personal Fiction Writing
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This is the new, revised edition, updated and improved. A few of the first edition are still available from the author.
I recommend it highly to teachers who write, writers who teach, and the students who keep all the others honest.
-- David Berry, Merlyn's Pen
Blazing Pencils is a wonderfully clear “how-to” guide to writing fiction and essays. The more than 150 writing ideas in Blazing Pencils will help the aspiring writer every step of the way in writing a complete story or essay. One of the great pieces of advice to young writers by their more experienced (and published) elders has been to “write, write and keep on writing.” But like any other craft, writing has its own tips, tricks and techniques. Blazing Pencils will heop shape and channel all that practice so ardently advocated to its most productive and rewarding end results.
-- Wisconsin Bookwatch
...There's a great overview for lower level writers about the five paragraph essay. If your students are like mine, you'll use M. S. Willis's lesson every term. Some of the better students will get the idea of a thesis and topic sentences just from the one lesson. Others will need a blazing pencil inserted under the fingernails....
-- "Marcus Aurelius"
A fine balance between text, exercises, and examples.
– Kliatt Young Adult Book Guide
Blazing Pencils: A Guide to Writing Fiction and Essays is a wonderfully clear "how-to" guide to writing fiction and essays. The more than 150 writing ideas in Blazing Pencils help the aspiring writer every step of the way in writing a complete story or essay. One of the great pieces of advice to young writers by their more experienced (and published) elders has been to "write, write and keep on writing". But like any other craft, writing has its own tips, tricks and techniques. Blazing Pencils will help shape and channel all that practice so ardently advocated to its most productive and rewarding end results.
– Midwest Book Review
To order from the publisher, click on Montemayor Press
To order from Amazon.com, click on Blazing Pencils
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Article about using a revision exercise from MSW's Deep Revision (Jennifer Kayton, 1-31-13)
Hundreds of ideas of how to enjoy the work of making writing fresher, richer, and more authentic.
Meredith Sue Willis wrote this book about her experiences in teaching elementary school students to keep going after a first draft. I use it in college classes, where the problem is the same: students write the first thing that comes to their mind, but stop there.
Willis presents almost 200 different exercises that engage the mind and make writing fun. For example, reverse revision is a process by which students try to make their writing worse and worse. By observing what obscures meaning and weakens sentences, they can then see what would work to make writing BETTER.
Other techniques, such as meditation, going deeper by adding details, changing media, and changing point of view, are useful for writers at any level of expertise.
The charming examples of writing and rewriting from Willis's students make this book delightful for classroom use.
-- Linda Burgess (Sugarloaf, CA USA)
Meredith Sue Willis has a playful but realistic understanding of revision. I appreciate her holistic approach; revision happens throughout the entire writing process and throughout our lives. She believes (as do I) that a first grader revising makes decisions very similar to an adult, and so the lessons of revision apply regardless of age. This book is chock-full of exercises for the practical-minded.
-- Elizabeth Andrews, Good Reads
To order from the publisher, click on Teachers & Writers
To order by mail, click on order.
Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel is a state of the art text on how to approach writing that novel and how to stay with it until you get it done....
-- Norman Julian, "About getting that novel started-- and finished" in The Writing Life, Dominion-Post of Morgantown, West Virginia August 23, 2010
I loved your book. I think it is a great resource for both beginners that seek a solid foundation, and those like me, who are writing their second or third novel.
-- Tricia Idrobo, Guest Post and Interview in Kathy Temean's Blog "Writing and Illustrating: Sharing Information about Writing and Illustrating for Children," August 20, 2010.
This book has many helpful creative writing tools in it. Meredith Sue Willis is an amazing author. She truly practices what she preaches. This book not only gives you creative writing techniques, but explains why these techniques work. I recommend this book to anyone who is serious about writing a novel.
Montemayor Press is proud to present a new book Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel by Meredith Sue Willis. Says Montemayor Press: "Meredith Sue Willis is a gifted and widely published writer of both fiction and nonfiction. In addition to her many fine novels and collections of stories, she has also published three widely praised books about the writing process: Personal Fiction Writing, Deep Revision, and Blazing Pencils. In Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel, Ms. Willis has now distilled several decades of writing—as well as her extensive experience as a teacher—to offer her readers an eloquent, practical guide to the delights and challenges of working with a big fictional canvas.
"An important addition to any novelist’s (or would-be novelist’s) resources about writing technique and the writing life, this clear, eminently practical guide offers both general approaches and targeted suggestions for working through the complex tasks of writing a novel. Ms. Willis describes multiple entryways into this formidable genre, offers vivid illustrations from classic and contemporary novels, and provides dozens of creative exercises to jump-start the writing process. Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel is destined to become a classic guide for newcomers and veterans alike."
To order from the publisher, e-mail: email@example.com , or go to the website at http://www.montemayorpress.com
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You may also order directly from MSW at Orders
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