Belle Boggs grew up in Virginia's Tidewater region, in a rural area near the Mattaponi River inhabited by hardscrabble whites, blacks and American Indians. Her respect for that land and its people, as well as a profound understanding of what's unique and what's universal about them, shine through in "Mattaponi Queen," her debut collection of linked short stories published by Minneapolis' Graywolf Press.
The quality and power of this young writer's imagination and writing are such that even if you've never been to that area, never plan to go, don't know, don't even care, where it is, you can't help but be snared good by these stories and characters.
There's Ronnie, a young woman who lives on the Mattaponi Indian Reservation with her good-hearted dad, Bruce, a white man still mooning after Ronnie's mom, a model for Disney's Pocahontas character who long ago left them for the bright lights of California. Ronnie is pregnant, but she hasn't told her husband yet, because he just got back from Iraq minus an arm. She finds comfort in hanging around with her woebegone dad and his best friend, Skinny, a fat, dying, amiable drunk whose own kids have rejected him.
There's Lila, a steel-hearted black principal who is irritated when her busybody old widower dad fixes her up with a white police officer even though he knows she's still pining for her lost jazz musician. What could go right with that date? Quite a lot, as it turns out.
And there's Marcus, the well-behaved son of New York drug dealers sent to live with his granny in Virginia, where he will be safer -- maybe.
And Loretta, a nurse wholly focused on her dream of buying an old houseboat, the Mattaponi Queen. As the boat's former owner, Mitchell, a romantic bungler, somewhat reluctantly turns it over to her, he asks: "Loretta, do you think women and men both need each other, or is it just men that need women?" She smiles a little and says these wise words: "Only thing you truly need is somebody to love you when you're little. Anything more is a bonus."
There's a character named Love, the mentally handicapped sister of a hard-working Washington, D.C., custodian whose struggling family is unsettled when she arrives by bus at their home, aimless and needy.
In "Shelter," the story of that custodian's family, he, his wife, sister, two kids and a ne'er-do-well climb off a bus and find themselves gaping at meteors above a seedy bus shelter; it's one of the most bittersweet scenes I've encountered in a piece of new American fiction in a long while. The scary stranger in the do-rag follows their gazes scornfully and suddenly can't "look away, he keeps watching like they're stars, every one of them ancient and real, about to come burning down right here at our feet and grant our very wishes." It's such a lovely juxtaposition of city and nature, seedy and grand, hopeless and hopeful.
That's Boggs' gift, for infusing mundane moments with magic. It's what the finest fiction does for us, helps us see what we might otherwise not. Belle Boggs' arrival is a gift to those who read looking for just such insight.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.