In the Mountains of America

The author of three novels set in Appalachia, Willis populates her first collection of 11 stories and one essay with men, women and children fueled by secret passions, and by the act of storytelling itself. "What I love is when the storyteller says simply, 'Just listen to this,'" Willis writes in "My Father's Stories: An Essay," which opens her book. It's no wonder, then, that Willis goes on to let her shop-owning grandmothers and adolescent waitresses draw each other into the histories of their lives with stories. In "Adventures of the Vulture," a local oddball confesses her life secrets to an undertaker in a letter meant to elaborate her eventual funeral arrangements. Secrets are common in these characters' lives. Love affairs and murder fantasies are rarely spoken, but their presence infuses these smart stories with tensions beyond the limits of plot. The two shortest pieces, "Miracle of the Locust Root" and "The Trestle," accomplish the least, not because of their brevity, but because a moral seems forced abruptly on the reader. Elsewhere Willis follows her own advice and lets her stories speak for themselves.


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