Reading Megan Mayhew Bergman's new collection of 13 stories, "Almost Famous Women," is like walking through a moving train and peering into the private compartments, each of which is occupied by an unhappy woman. Are they in despair because they never quite reached fame, or is their unhappiness the reason for their obscurity?
These are stories of real women that Bergman has compassionately placed in fictionalized settings. Sometimes their unhappiness is born of circumstance, like Violet and Daisy Hilton in "The Pretty, Grown-Together Children." Conjoined twins — two voices, four arms and legs, one body — they had a rough start and their place in the world didn't improve as they aged. They were exploited and abused, working sideshows, then vaudeville, then a grocery store. Bergman's superb storytelling creates a haunting and sympathetic tale that opens this great collection.
Empathy might be the hallmark of all these stories as Bergman tugs on our emotions and examines these women by following those who surround them. In "The Siege at Whale Cay," the focus is not on M.B. "Joe" Carstairs — the fastest woman on water — but on sad Georgie, who had worked as a mermaid in Florida and who now passes time as Joe's lover but is uprooted by a movie star, who commands all of Joe's attention.
In the terrific concluding story, "Hell-Diving Women," Bergman follows Ernestine "Tiny" Davis, the "hottest female trumpeter in the universe," and her racially integrated band as they tour the South, playing gigs under constant threat from Jim Crow laws. Bergman focuses her story on Ruby, the do-anything girl who desperately wants to be closer to Tiny.
A convent in San Giovanni, Italy, in the 1820s is the setting for "The Autobiography of Allegra Byron," where the 3-year-old illegitimate daughter of the most flamboyant of the Romantic poets, Lord Byron, has been delivered. Her brief life there is not a happy one, told by her caretaker, who came to the convent after the death of her own newborn daughter and husband.
While all of these stories carry a weight of sadness with a hint of hope, they all vary in structure; Bergman is a spry and meticulous writer, and these stories linger in one's memory long after reading them.
Like her dazzling first collection, "Birds of a Lesser Paradise" (2012), Bergman's new stories give us the best of what short fiction offers: a glimpse of intriguing characters, told in unique and varied voices, set in pivotal snatches of their fascinating lives.
Jim Carmin is a book critic in Portland, Ore.