June 2010

Jennifer Taylor

fiction

Mattaponi Queen: Stories by Belle Boggs

Mattaponi Queen, Belle Boggs’s flawless debut collection and 2009 Bakeless Fiction Prize winner, contains a series of interconnected stories about the inhabitants of the Mattaponi Indian Reservation and bordering Virginia counties. It’s the kind of place where people tend to settle with decades of secrets, even if they had once envisioned living somewhere else.

In "Good News for a Hard Time," Ronnie returns to her childhood home as she waits to see her injured husband Jeremy at Walter Reed. Ronnie ponders how different decisions would have impacted her life, and how her family will adapt to both revealed and unrevealed changes. Ronnie’s father Bruce still lives with dogs Brooks and Dunn in the “defunct hunting lodge,” on the reservation, although he isn’t Indian like Ronnie’s mother, who left them years ago. Yet Bruce belongs there just as much as anyone else, no matter his lineage.

Boggs’s landscape informs the tone of the stories and its protagonists alike. “The reservation was just like anywhere else, trailers and double-wides and clapboard ranchers set on weedy lawns far off the black asphalt road. Pickup trucks with expired license plates. Girls who wore tight jeans and hairspray. It wasn’t exotic or special, just a big bunch of acres on the river.”

"Imperial Chrysanthemum" is about fraught relationships. Loretta is a nurse saving for an aging houseboat named the Mattaponi Queen that would allow her to unmoor herself and drift away from her problems down the river. She works for cantankerous Cutie Young, an old woman with an abundance of possessions, most of which she doesn’t even use. Cutie’s self-worth is linked to her Imperial Chrysanthemum patterned heirloom silverware collection that’s recently been pilfered. Since the theft, Loretta’s days consist of driving Cutie in the 1982 Ford Country Squire to antique stores in search of the pawned silver.

One of the most poignant scenes takes place when they stop for lunch at Dairy Queen after another fruitless trip. Cutie sets the remaining spoon and napkin ring onto the picnic table. “Sometimes when she says my name it has a melody, almost like singing. Lo-ret-ta. It is one of the things that keep me from hating her. She bends over the burger, unwrapping it slowly. The spoon is glinting in the light, not showing any tarnish.”

"It Won’t Be Long" chronicles Wayne Littleton, an alcoholic dying from untreatable hepatitis C. In spite of his size, everybody calls him Skinny. He’s a mechanic whose front lawn is littered by automobile carcass, loves watching the Food Network and making elaborate dishes. There aren’t many remaining parcels of land left on the reservation, and Skinny’s buildings are on three lots situated at the edge of a cliff. He understands why his teenaged kids don’t enjoy visiting -- he doesn’t know how to act around them. He’s envious of Bruce’s family, because his daughter grew up on the reservation and moved back. But how can he pique Erin and Tyler’s interest in their heritage that seems so far removed?

The title story is about Loretta’s coveted boat and her previous owner. Mitchell had given the Mattaponi Queen to his wife years before, but Joanne didn’t appreciate it. After their divorce, he tries to figure out another woman in the family who might like to inherit the floating heirloom. “The Queen sat on a trailer for most of Mitchell and Gary’s childhood, her squat hull nosing out of their grandfather’s barn, and served as a dark, cobwebby stage for the usual wars and competitions of brothers close in age.”

Mitchell’s daughter doesn’t have the inclination to be a boat owner, either. Besides, the Queen isn’t in exactly tiptop shape -- Mitchell worked on repairs over the years, but without his family’s interest, he hadn’t bothered, and contemplates selling. Loretta answers his ad in the paper, and Mitchell gives her a tour of the boat, which used to be for gambling years before. “Loretta shook her head knowingly while he told her these facts. Everything in this town, she said, used to be something more interesting than what it was now.”

Each of the stories in the debut collection can stand alone, something many writers aspire to yet few achieve with such success. The protagonists aren’t merely hardscrabble people trying to get by, they’re trying to make sense of their lives and where they fit in the space of the world beyond the neighboring counties. Boggs’s carefully measured pace is the perfect accompaniment to her unique setting and its people who are indelibly linked.

Mattaponi Queen: Stories by Belle Boggs
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 1555975585
240 Pages