"This is a story that has been waiting for me—and now I am old enough to tell it." So begins Ellen Douglas's remarkable new short-story collection. The author of seven previous books (one of which, Apostles of Light, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1973), Douglas here embroiders and expands on a quartet of quietly startling stories that have been passed down through her family. The narratives range throughout the Deep South, across generations of extended clans wealthy enough to have their ancestors' portraits on the walls and servants in the kitchen. In one, an African-American woman cares for a dying white man who turns out to have more life in him than his loved ones could have imagined. In another, a web of friends and relations conceals a genteel, seething hothouse of lust and betrayal. In a third, the echoes of a slave revolt and its brutal suppression ripple through generations.
Douglas's themes—race relations, family, truth and memory, polite behavior and unruly passions—make the lessons and the legacy of the past seem timely and contemporary. Reading this hardheaded, brave and charming collection is like listening to a funny and gifted family story-teller on a summer afternoon, on a shady porch, somewhere in the South. Fortunately, this Truth had to come out sooner or later. (Algonquin, $18.95)
Bottom Line: Powerful family chronicles shared with restraint and Southern good manners