[10 August 2010]
Belle Boggs’ Mattaponi Queen is a strikingly poised debut collection of stories. In fact, “poised” is a word that describes the book almost too well. Loosely grouped around the Mattaponi River in Virginia, these stories are characterized by apparently paradoxical feelings of loss and rootedness, of wistfulness for the past and striving for something better in the future.
For all this, they retain a surface calm. There is little violent action such as fistfights or shootings or even raised voices. The threat of violence underscores some of these scenarios, but it rarely blossoms to the surface. The stories are, in a word, poised.
Several stories focus around the Mattaponi Indian reservation, a place that Boggs takes pains to describe as unremarkable from the surrounding landscape: “Quickly he discovered that the reservation was no different from anywhere else he’d seen in King William: trees, fields, squat little houses and trailers.” Readers seeking a headdress-and-powwow depiction of Native Americans will be disappointed; people in these stories are as stubbornly individual as in real life.
Characters are described with impressive concision. When a black teenager from Brookyn relocates to rural Virginia, the reader is told that “None of the kids he met at King William High School had ever been to New York City, so Marcus could have told them the Empire State Building was made out of MoonPies and 50 Cent was his uncle and they would have believed him.” This is followed by a clever put-down that characterizes both the newcomer and the locals: “These were kids, black and white, who hung out at gas stations for fun.”
Such sentences are masterful combinations of compression and understatement, and there are many of them. When a young man enjoying a night out with his divorced father is reluctant to join in with the complaints about his mother, it’s because “He always had the feeling that the parent who was being criticized was watching.” Elsewhere, a college-age woman reflects that her father “tended to believe what was most convenient at the time.”
These examples might lead one to expect that all the protagonists are teenagers and college students. While that demographic is well represented here, as might be expected in a debut collection from a young author, there is much more. In fact, Boggs takes on an impressive array of ages and ethnicities: white, black, and Indian; teens, adults, the elderly. All are handled with believability and grace.
The collection is bracketed by two stories of just a few pages. “Deer Season” explores the effects that opening day of hunting season has on a high school, while “Youngest Daughter” introduces the reader to one of the region’s most elderly characters and re-introduces another in a short, pithy episode. Between these two vignettes are ten stories, most of them roughly 20 pages—long enough to be substantial and to require a certain investment of effort from the reader, but not so long as to feel bloated.
In “Good News For a Hard Time”, a pregnant college dropout returns home to her divorced father, unsure how to break the news either to him or to her husband, returning home from Afghanistan with a missing arm. “Opportunity” focuses on the tragicomic travails of a school administrator trying to arrange an elementary school Career Day in an area where careers are few and the local hotshot is the guy who owns the McDonald’s franchise. “Buckets of Rain” tells the story of a teenager attending a Bob Dylan concert with his alcoholic father. Needless to say, things go wrong, and besides that Dylan sucks.
In the longest story, “Homecoming”, New York transplant Marcus moves in with his grandmother, joins the football team, gets popular and enjoys himself a bit before things turn sour. “Mattaponi Queen” tells of a black woman who has spent her life as a domestic servant for the local (white) gentry, and who dreams of retirement spent aboard a refurbished riverboat. There is a happy ending of sorts here, but one tempered with longing from an unexpected quarter.
Although these stories are discrete in themselves, there are doses of cross-fertilization. Thus, the woman who buys the boat in “Mattaponi Queen” has already been introduced in the earlier story “Imperial Chysanthemum”, and the injured husband in “Good News For a Hard Time” is seen as a much younger boy in “Buckets of Rain”. This technique is never overdone, and in fact some of the connections are quite subtle, but they add a sense of community to these stories which would otherwise be absent.
That community feeling is unexpected, given how many families in this collection have been fractured beyond repair. Married couples are divorced, children are estranged from parents, even young lovers have trouble talking to each other. Despite this, Boggs manages to evoke a place which is indisputably home for these characters. It’s a striking achievement, and this is a very strong collection.