"DAUGHTERS OF MUSCADINE: STORIES" by Monic Ductan (Fireside Industries/University Press of Kentucky, 144 pages, $25).
Recurring characters and themes in Monic Ductan's debut story collection, "Daughters of Muscadine," recall the vines of their fictional setting's namesake. These linked stories reveal the entangled historical and psychological legacies at work in several generations of Black families in Muscadine, a rural town in northeast Georgia.
Ductan, who was born and raised in Georgia, now lives in Cookeville, Tennessee, where she teaches literature and creative writing at Tennessee Tech University. In 2020, Oxford American published Ductan's on-the-ground account of the deadly tornado that ravaged Cookeville at the same moment the COVID-19 pandemic first descended. The piece is written with clear-eyed compassion, establishing a voice and perspective that serve Ductan well in "Daughters of Muscadine," which presents a series of small-town narrators with whom we can easily connect and empathize.
Most of these narrators are young Black girls and women navigating their way through life in Muscadine, but the opening story, "Black Water," offers a man's reflections on his childhood's haunted family history which includes local legend Ida Pearl Crawley, a Black woman lynched in the 1920s. Accused of setting fire to the family home of the white man who employed her (and fathered her two children), Pearl becomes a ghostly presence who continues to wield influence decades later.
Remarking on the complicated legacy of his heritage, the narrator says, "[It] was Pearl people still talked about; at least that was good for something." Ductan establishes early that in the world of a small town, legends can become a valuable kind of currency.
Alongside Pearl stands another local figure, Lucy Boudreaux -- a well-liked member of Muscadine's famed girls basketball team in the late 1980s. Through a collective "we" narrator representing the other girls on the team, "Gris-Gris" recounts what happens when Lucy goes missing. Lucy's disappearance merges the everyday world of teenage girls with myriad dangers lurking in the weeds around them.
Like Pearl, Lucy soon becomes more of a local emblem than an individual. "In hindsight, we wanted her home for purely selfish reasons," the girls admit after their winning record begins to suffer. "We wanted her for us, our joy, the excitement we felt when she sank a three after popping the ball into the air, quick as lightning off the dribble."
The fates of Pearl and Lucy reverberate within the narratives of all the stories that follow. Brief but resonant references give these legacies room to echo within the stories of other girls and women who are haunted in their own ways.
In "Kasha and Ansley," for example, a young woman tries to expand her constricted emotional world and daily routine after her grandmother's death brings her estranged sister, who's freer but messier, home to stay. "June's Menorah" gives a glimpse into one young girl's way of coping with fraught changes happening in her family during the late 1950s. An avid reader, this narrator looks to Anne Frank's diary to find a parallel model for the emotional isolation and danger she feels at home.
"The Sense of Touch" offers a pandemic-era reflection on grief and the anxieties of contemporary dating. Her world upended, the story's narrator -- a young woman whose husband was recently killed in an accident -- must decipher what intimacy means for her now.
In the collection's most psychologically suspenseful story, "Daughter," the narrator has a chance encounter with the daughter she gave up for adoption at birth, now a grown woman who's the spitting image of her birth mother. We follow the narrator's conflicted drive to shadow this long-lost daughter and pursue reconnection with her, for better or worse.
Each story highlights Ductan's insightful grasp on the complexities of her setting. "You Can Have It" explores the conflicts that can arise within a rural community when some of its young people have been labeled "promising" while others have been written off from childhood as "all bad." The collection's closing story, "White Jesus," turns on the uneasy friendship between a newcomer to Muscadine and the daughter of a racist white family with complicated roots in the community, whose church becomes a focal point for the narrator's precarious relationship to her new life in this small Southern town.
Throughout "Daughters of Muscadine," Ductan weaves a larger interconnected picture of Muscadine's fictional world by namechecking certain characters in numerous stories, often bringing them back in peripheral roles. Some references are no more than a surname, dropped at the right moment, suggesting deep wells of history that flow into the scenes at hand, heightening our awareness of the tensions at work in each individual narrative.
The links among these touching stories are subtle but effective, accumulating in our minds as we read. Thanks to Ductan's detailed command of her setting and the compassionate clarity she brings to her narrators, we easily grow attached to a wide range of Muscadine's Black daughters and sons.
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