PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


The Characters in 'Acts of God' Personify the Expression, "Grace Under Pressure"

With quick wit and clean prose, Ellen Gilchrist reminds us of the human race's ability to face life's curveballs with persistence and grace.

Acts of God

Publisher: Algonquin
Length: 256 pages
Author: Ellen Gilchrist
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-04

At the end of the epigraph (by Robert Ardrey) in Ellen Gilchrist's Acts of God it reads: "The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk, but how magnificently he has risen." This optimism is at the heart of Gilchrist's newest collection of short stories.

As someone late to her work, I was initially attracted to Acts of God due to my penchant for short fiction and dangerous weather – a combination that is obvious when looking over the book for the first time. However, while the stories share the common thread of natural disasters – tornadoes, hurricanes, terrorist threats, accidents, and illness – all of these “acts of God“ are secondary to the characters and their tenacity in the face of crisis.

The ten stories that make up Acts of God include tales about teenagers finding a baby boy in the wreck of a tornado; stranded passengers in Heathrow coming together in the wake of a terrorist attack; a couple rekindling their waning love affair after helping victims in a hospital hit by Hurricane Katrina; and a terminally ill woman devising her own spectacular death.

More than once, the book addresses the ethics of suicide and terminal illness. In "The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath", the protagonist, a wealthy glamorous maven named Philipa decides to end her life before Multiple Sclerosis can disable her. She leaves her husband a note that reads: “I cannot be an invalid. I cannot be an old, sick, dying person."

Similarly in “Jumping off Bridges into Clear Water“, a man named Jimmy diagnosed with polio also toys with the idea of ending his life. These people are well past middle age, but are still blessed with good looks and, up to this time in their lives, good fortune, and want to walk out of life with as much self-respect as they possibly can.

In the title story, an elderly couple named Will and Amelie, while not terminally ill, feel bound by the fact their children have hired a "sitter" to look after them. One of the duties of the sitter is to make sure Will and Amelie don't try to get behind the wheel of their car.

When they break free and take a joy ride to the grocery store and around the block on a “sun-drenched Saturday morning“, the results are disastrous. After they crash their car, Will looks up just before he dies to see a boy who witnesses the crash. He tells him: “There's ice cream in the back seat, Little Buddy. Be sure someone puts it in the freezer." It's as if Gilchrist (who is in her 70s) is reminding us that what we choose to do in the face of aging and disease may shorten our lives even more but may also preserve our dignity.

Another issue that seems to be on the minds of Gilchrist's characters is memory. In "Miracle in Adkins, Arkansas" protagonist Marie, who rescues a baby after a tornado, reveals her preoccupation with how fleeing memory is and that of all the moments we have in life, we are only able to hang on to a few handfuls. She realizes it takes big events like finding a baby in a tornado to remain in one's memory for years to come.

“I don't want all my memories lost in some fog like most people's are,“ Marie thinks. "I am capturing mine every chance I get." Similarly in the title story, the son of Will and Amelie thinks to himself after their death, “There is much we know that we forget... so much goodness we must strive to remember."

There are moments in these stories that teeter on cliché, but Gilchrist is so adroit at getting to the heart of each of her skillfully written characters that she has earned her platitudes. She has also had a prolific career that is comprised of over 20 books, including novels, books of poetry, short story collections, and a memoir. Additionally, she has a National Book Award under her belt awarded for her collection of short stories, Victory over Japan, written in 1984. It's safe to say at this point, Gilchrist knows what she's doing.

Many of Gilchrist's characters have lived in her previous short fiction collections. One of these characters is Rhoda Manning, a salty 67-year-old woman who is a writer and said to be Gilchrist's alter ego. In "The Dogs", Manning pens a letter to her new neighbors, asking them to keep their dogs quiet while she is sleeping. Her letter blows up into a neighborhood epistolary feud that includes lawyers and references to The Sopranos. It's the most entertaining and only humorous story in the collection and stands alone in this respect.

An example of this unexpected humor can be found in the letter Manning writes to an old friend at the end of the story. She is listing things she would do if she were to get cancer. Her list includes “fuck one of my old boyfriends' and “charter a plane and fly somewhere to watch Andre Agassi play tennis."

Life is short, and Gilchrist is here to remind you of it. Acts of God is a straightforward and passionate meditation on making the most of the time we are given. Philipa from “The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath“ sums it up best when she tells the reader: “It does not matter how long you live... It only matters that you love it while you're here."


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.