The first novel by Elizabeth Spencer, Fire in the Morning, was published in 1948. Now 92, Spencer has just published a new collection of recently written short stories titled Starting Over. (One dates from 1988, four from 2012 or 2013.) I think the title is meant ironically, though not in the sense of any radical departures in style or subject matter or location of her stories, but in that it proves impossible for characters to start over, freed from their pasts. They are haunted by childhood marginalizations or by residues (scars and children) of failed marriages, or in what can be read as a ghost story (“On the Hill”), a seemingly glamorous couple who moved away (and who may have been abusing their son).
In “Sightings,” it is a daughter whose mother got custody but who seeks refuge (from what she implies is an abusive stepfather-to-be) with the father whose blinding she was responsible for. In my other favorite story, “The Wedding Visitor,” a man who has become the minder for a Memphis Congressman returns to the family that rather begrudgingly raised him after the death of his parents, and helps out a possible rascal marrying into. The male protagonists of both stories have scarred-over but unhealed wounds.
The female protagonist (who seems especially likely to be autobiographical) of one of the two Christmas stories, “Christmas Longings” has not entirely gotten over having to play a shepherd rather than an angel (or the Virgin) in a Presbyterian church Christmas pageant long ago (in what seems to be a Mississippi town). A shadow on her marriage, Cousin Edward , drops in on Patricia in “Return Trip,” reigniting the feelings of exclusion from their close relationship of her husband, Boyd. Early in their marriage, Boyd found Patricia and Edward passed out (fully clothed) on the bed of a room in which Edward usually stayed. It is difficulty for Boyd to let go of suspicions, since the only child, Mark, who is back from college, looks very much like Edward. That is, Boyd is never sure that he is a part of the family he has married into, and can never have the relaxed security Edward still has with Patricia.
The father in the other Christmas story, the delicate “The Everlasting Light,” (which I like better than “Christmas Longing”), is an outsider to the taken-for-granted Christianity of his wife and daughters..
Wallace Hawkins, the male protagonist in “The Boy in the Tree” (which also may be read as a ghost story) is caught between his aged mother and a wife who loathe each other, and goes into reveries of childhood when matters were simpler (he might be the title character).
In “Blackie” there is an aged father-in-law and a faithful dog, but the story turns out to be about the literal ejection of the son by a previous marriage of Emily, whose life consists largely catering to her husband, her husband’s father and three sons (and the dog, the title character, whom I assume is also male).
The one story that I don’t particularly like (but don’t actively) dislike, “Rising Tide,” is another portrayal of the lingering pains and frustrations of a woman (Margery) whose husband (Willard) left her for a younger woman, and a somewhat odd South Asian student who befriends (but does not attempt to bed) her.
Spencer deftly sketches characters and festering wounds inflicted by callous spouses or blood relatives. I’d have liked clearer specification of place and time, but supplied ones. All nine stories involve Southerners from or in either Mississippi or North Carolina and I guess that exactly locating them in time is not all that important, especially in that William Faulkner’s proclamation that, in the South (as in the Balkans), the past is not even past continues to hold.
SPencer dedicated this book to fellow North Carolina writer Allan Gurganus, who dedicated one of the three novellas in his recent (late-2013) Local Souls (also published by the recently revived Liveright line) to her.
I have written about three of Spencer’s novels here:
This Crooked Way (1952)
The Voice at the Back Door (1956)
The Salt Line (1984)