Can you even imagine a more perfect cover for a book to bear for an event such as this?
From the outside, it appears the quintessential Irish collection.
The title, too, conjures up images of lush landscapes, farms bound by stone fences, above which a leprechaun or pixie might peer at any moment.
Okay, that might be a bit much. In the Middle of the Fields may be coated with shamrocks, but it’s not exactly leprechaun-stuffed.
And, although the tales may feel traditional and familiar in some ways, may appear quintessentially Irish in their country-feel, Mary Lavin’s stories also contain insights and occurrences which feel surprisingly sharp and modern, too.
Take the first tale, for instance, the title story with that country-feel. Here is how it begins:
“Like a rock in the sea, she was islanded by fields, the heavy grass washing about the house, and the cattle wading in it as in water.”
A widow woman, a recently widowed woman living on the farm with her small children, is speaking to a man in the neighbourhood about having someone in to have her grass topped.
“It was the ugly tufts of tow and scutch that whitened the tops of the grass and gave it the look of a sea in storm, spattered with broken foam.”
And, in some ways, that is what the story is about: grasses and fields and what a woman needs to arranged to have done to them when her husband has died and left her and grasses on their own.
“I wonder! she thought as she walked back to the house, and she envied the practical country way that made good the defaults of nature as readily as the broken sod knits back into the sward.”
But of course it’s also about other defaults, other damage, being mended, knitted back together again.
“I sometimes think love has nothing to do with people at all,” says Vera, in “The Cuckoo-Spit”. (Google it: I did!)
And of course not all the stories are country stories.
Even in the second tale, Andrew Gill loathes Dublin, but the narrator of the story adores it, and tells him so, “though she felt that the slender connection between them would surely now snap like a twig”.
The second story is titled “The Lucky Pair”, and the remaining stories are “Heart of Gold”, “The Cuckoo-Spit”, “One Summer”, and “The Mock Auction”.
Curiously the jacket suggests there are only five stories in the collection, which makes me wonder if this English edition contained a story that hadn’t been published in other editions.
Certainly, by 1967 Mary Lavin was an established author, with her first volume of stories, Tales from Bective Bridge having been published in 1942, scooping the James Tait Black Memorial Prize that year.
In “Bad Neighbours”, a story in E.P. Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Sharon read part of Mary Lavin’s Tales from Bective Bridge in school.
“My teacher shared two with me and I’m hooked,” she said.
Sharon is telling her neighbour’s brother about it, having gone over there in hopes of borrowing the brother’s copy of this collection. The neighbour bends down to check the brother’s bookcase for it.
“He knelt, peered for a moment, and put the book [that Sharon was returning] between two green books on the second shelf up from the bottom. ‘L is for Lavin,’ Derek said and found the book. ‘M is for Mary.’ He looked at it front and back. ‘I know one thing for sure: He loves this woman’s work so you best not lose it. I think the almighty reader is part Irish and don’t know it yet.'”
This is my first reading of Mary Lavin’s stories, but I understand why Sharon and Derek and countless other readers — fictional and otherwise — have gotten hooked on her story-telling.
Are you one of those readers? Are you participating in Irish Short Story Week?