Each of them seemed to possess that kind of “I could tell you stories all day” attitude, like the stories were just a collection of happenings.
You know that easy kind of feeling that some stories have?
But as you read along in this collection, you quickly realize that there’s nothing accidental about these stories.
They are not told by someone absent-mindedly rocking in a chair by the fire, intermittently dozing and telling tales.
They are told by someone who works late into the evenings, so engrossed in the crafting that they forget to turn on a light, until they suddenly realize that their nose is nearly touching the page with devotion, with concentration, with determination.
This does not mean that every reader will enjoy reading these tales; they are long (averaging about 30 pages) and there is a lot of internal action, a lot of quiet observation, a lot of setting-up-scenes and allowing events to play out across them as the storyteller sees fit.
But for those who want the complicated kind of spinning that one usually associates with novel-length works but in a short story…
For those who know Washington D.C. well enough to imagine the intersections and streetscapes that Jones so definitively describes…
For those who crave a collection of stories that deliberately seeks to represent a diverse set of African American experiences…
For those who have read his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Known World and have no other novel of his to read…
For those readers, All Aunt Hagar’s Children will be a satisfying work indeed.
But don’t read it.
That’s right: don’t read it.
At least not if you are, like me, obsessed with wanting to read works in their proper order.
After I had already written a post about this collection, I scouted about for the radio program that I heard about 7-8 years ago (I think it was Eleanor Wachtel’s program on CBC, but it’s not archived) that put me on to Jones’ work.
I couldn’t find it — though I did find this NPR program from 2006, and the link did contain excerpts from the interview.
But I did find Wyatt Mason’s “Ballad for Americans: The Stories of Edward P. Jones”. It’s just a wonderful essay, the kind that makes you want to read every word he’s been inspired to discuss therein.
And Mason points out that Jones’ first volume of stories, published in 1992, Lost in the City, contains 14 stories, arranged in a particular order, so that the youngest of the characters appears in the first tale and the oldest in the last.
Which is significant, because Jones’ second collection, this one, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, published in 2006, also contains 14 stories, arranged in the same order, and — there’s more — with the stories sharing characters across the collection and — there’s *still* more…
“[h]e is constantly paralleling his themes and mirroring his images, which creates, for a reader who knows the first collection, a suite of ‘third things’ that extend beyond the two stories themselves: places in the mind where these fourteen distant marriages are made.”
Don’t you just love it when the known literary world just gets that much larger?
And now I also understand why the PEN/Faulkner Foundation awarded Edward P. Jones the PEN/Malamud Award for short fiction in 2010 after only two collections.
But all I can speak to, having missed that fact in advance of reading this volume, are the stories in All Aunt Hagar’s Children; these stories move across eras and across the spans of lifetimes.
From infancy and birthing:
“All I can say is that even if he was the Devil hisself, he was still mine. I gave him life.”
To teen years:
“Sharon was not one to keep a diary, but if she had been, the meeting of a few minutes with Terence would have taken up at least two pages.”
“On the elevator, she began to feel that she had slept through something and now that she was awake, she had to make do with what she now had.”
“We went on in different suns down through September and up into the days of October. My father’s corn that fall was not what he would have liked, but the peaches from the small tree in the northeast corner of the backyard did well by him.”
(I know it’s a long passage to quote, just to give a sense of tone, but I love peaches: I can’t resist finishing the paragraph.)
“My mother sliced up some and put cream on them and allowed me and Delores to eat them. She had enough left over to make a cobbler for my father’s father.”
Can’t you smell the corn? Taste the cobbler?
So these quotes give an idea about ‘who’ is telling (or about whom it’s being told), and ‘how’ it’s being told, but there’s still the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of it.
One of the author’s preoccupations is that sense of what happens when you alter your course:
“It was, I learned later about myself, as if my heart, on the path that was my life, had come to a puddle in the road and had faltered, hesitated, trying to decide whether to walk over the puddle or around it, or even to go back.”
We all know those moments, those puddles in the road.
Another preoccupation surrounds the idea that despite many of the seemingly artificial barriers we erect between us as individuals and groups that accentuate the differences between us, there are as many (or more) similarities:
“ We want, we rage, we desire, we fail, we succeed. We stand in that long, long line.”
And Edward P. Jones’ storytelling reaches backwards and forwards, up and down, that long, long line.
Wyatt Mason suggests that the stories can be read independently (and I agree: I was still impressed with All Aunt Hagar’s Children without realizing the depth of the author’s skill in crafting), but I, for one, am now looking back down the long, long line to Lost in the City.
And you? Have you read this author’s work? From the beginning, or from the end, or in the middle?