Deadheading & Other Stories
Red Hen Press (2021)
Reviewed by Amy Lignor for Reader Views (02/2022)
Beth Gilstrap’s world set in the Carolinas is completely different, yet feels exactly the same as my own surroundings while growing up in the Litchfield Hills. Although her short stories don’t have the same scenery, her characters, her emotions, as well as the truly hard times felt by people who end up with nothing but worry, were all felt by my own ‘clan’ long ago.
Told in a Southern gothic style, the author unleashes her obvious skill and grandness to write stories that seem as if you’re sitting in a Broadway seat, watching one of the greatest shows on earth performed before your very eyes. Each tale speaks of something different, of course, but each has that strong tie to the mountains and ‘boomtowns’ of the Carolinas that reek of isolation and almost has a haunting quality looming over each area. She talks about the working class, and how the female brigade, so to speak, fights against the norm. She explains how they work to set aside that old notion of Southern ‘misses’ wanting nothing but that beau who “sets them up” in a life of luxury so they can be the token trophy-wife. Gilstrap dives into the feminine uprising during a time when small business fall apart and larger companies sell out, when money is tight to the point where violence springs up and gives the women and girls something even greater to fight for – their very survival in a world that seems to be crumbling all around them.
The vein that readers will feel pulsing through these stories comes from the fact that these hard-working, sometimes grizzled folk are carved out of the stone and created from the very soil they work each and every day in these lonely places. They are bent on living in the niche they’ve made, and they even have that feral ‘tone’ about them when they fight to keep what they’ve earned, a strength that reminds me of a wild animal protecting its young.
This collection also uses the lush Southern language and is spot-on when describing and allowing the reader to feel those glimpses of light and hope that are real and do exist for these people. Completely “steeped” in the South, I have to say that one of my favorites, that will forever stick with me, was a short tale entitled, “Lake Hartwell, South Carolina.” Every word written in this small slice of heaven was so visual and so powerful that I saw my own grandparents before my eyes following Miss Gilstrap’s words as if they were actors in her screenplay. I have a feeling I won’t be the only reader who sees their own grandma wearing her frayed housecoat as the kids race in and beg for food that grandma has already cooked, knowing the little ones would arrive screaming after their morning of fun; or hearing their own grandpa almost beg for them to be quiet because it hurts his “nerves.” This story, as with the others in this book, was filled with lush scents, sights and sounds, and offered a feeling of comfort that had me believing Lake Hartwell was also a small town I personally named the “Hellmouth” back east. (The nickname wasn’t against my grandparents, by the way…it’s just another story.)
The author can’t hear me, but I am applauding the effort that went into these stories and the wealth of drama, family, emotions, and excitement she was able to put on paper. I would recommend that all out there read this one. I guarantee that everyone will have their own “favorite” tales by the time they bid the South goodbye!