Book Review

Laura Dennis on
stories by William Woolfitt
Madville Publishing, 2023


“‘I love it here and now I hate it too,’” says Leah, one of the protagonists of “In the Hollow.” For varying reasons and in different ways, one can imagine most of the characters in Ring of Earth, William Woolfitt’s first full-length story collection, saying much the same. Time and again, they seek a way out of their circumstances, not so much because they don’t love the land, but because they are desperate for connection they cannot find there. Take Leah and her boyfriend Sam, who move several times trying to find a suitable home. When at last they do, they find their relationship with each other strengthened as well. Unfortunately, the place turns out to be literally poisoned; this in turn strains the relationship. In other stories, such as “What the Beech Tree Knows,” the connection to place is strong despite the absence of human bonds. Still, one cannot help but ask what will happen to the semi-orphaned boy when his uncle finishes logging out his parents’ land. Will the boy burn with fever like the doctor in “Fire Season”?

“Fire Season” serves as an especially strong example of Woolfitt’s ability to write a wide cast of characters. The principal figure in this story is not in fact the doctor, but rather his oldest daughter, Suse. She wants nothing more than to take over her father’s practice but is constantly rebuffed, told she should marry, perhaps become a teacher. In an era where women are choosing the bear over the man, where a man who makes millions kicking balls tells women their greatest joy lies in being barefoot and pregnant, the empathy for Suse’s plight comes as a soothing balm, even as we despise the patriarchy that seeks to restrain her. 

Indeed, the protagonists of these stories are young and old, male and female, Appalachians living in a variety of places and times. Readers might find themselves following present-day tourists as they visit a wax museum or an aquarium, or they might accompany immigrant miners who self-segregate by race, ethnicity, and nationality as they take a break from their work underground. In one story, white, Black, and Native American characters work together on a plantation where most of the crops have failed; in another, a teenage boy tries to find his way in a world where his mom works as a cashier at Walmart while he assists his uncle’s mail-order bride. 

Woolfitt, who has authored several books of poetry, displays 
both an ear for language and a gift for finely observed detail throughout Ring of Earth

These 15 stories are equally varied when it comes to structure. A couple are short enough to qualify as flash, while the longest comes in at 17 pages. They cover various spans of time, from a single moment to many years, all with admirable mastery of narrative economy. Moreover, Woolfitt plays with narration and form in productive ways. Most of the stories are narrated in third person, with five narrated in first. These include “Bad Blood” in which first-person plural narration is used to powerful effect, and “Crow Stories,” told in first-person singular, which unspools like a modern-day fable. Two stories, “Daughter with a Star on Her Brow” and “June Drop,” employ section headings; in others white space does the work of separating perspectives or time frames. A particularly strong example of this is “Velvet Knob,” which alternates between two characters known only as “the hog farmer” and “the hog farmer’s wife.” The white space between sections highlights what seems to be an ever-growing gulf between the two until they come together near the story’s end: 

He is his wife’s arms when she clutches him, he is the wings of her shoulder blades when she turns 
from him. Her voice and dreams are the only gold he knows, he is the gold of her, the gold of sundown 
and Elberta peaches and poplar leaves and moss that grows between roof-shakes, he is gold in her hands. 
He is motes of hay in barn light, grass-bits caught in a ray, in a spill of gold that spears through the cracked 
gray boards. He is cedar smell, and the soft bed, and the odor of wood-smoke caught inside the house.

As one might surmise from this passage, Woolfitt, who has authored several books of poetry, displays both an ear for language and a gift for finely observed detail throughout Ring of Earth. This goes for both objects, such as the apples that “will meet a ghastly end in Stephanie’s fridge, where lemons grow fur and salad mix rots to puddles of slime,” and people, such as this description of an adolescent boy:

As for himself, Jake doesn’t know what he wants, doesn’t know which of the world’s equations he should 
plug himself into. He is fourteen. There is a strain in him, a yearning for things he doesn’t have words for, 
as if he’s starting to upheave, crack apart until he’s webbed with lines running in all directions.

Jake’s longing is echoed by other characters throughout the collection as they grapple with the question of what the world sees versus what lies beneath. This theme of surface versus substrate also pertains the land, land that has been destroyed from within by mining. Just as in “Ring of Earth,” the title and final story, the narrator and his grandfather fill a sinkhole with stones, so the characters throughout Woolfitt’s collection seek to fill and/or conceal the chasms they carry inside. For some, this never seems to happen, while others enjoy something one might call success. In “Only the Wind,” for example, a “dough-faced” girl named Rhodie, whom everyone either teases or ignores, finds a job in another town where she reinvents herself. Or at least she tries: “Rhodie almost didn’t miss her family,” the narrator states, that “almost” weighing more than the rest of the words in the phrase combined.

At first, one might be tempted to conclude that Ring of Earth is about all that has been and continues to be lost: connection with family, peers, and lovers, our relationship to and respect for the land. Another look, however, reveals the collection contains so much more. It reminds us of what we hold onto despite the longing, despite the loss, despite the alienation and the unkept promises. It is about a good foot soak, a strip of elk meat, a hidden stream, about the ways sensory memory captures and preserves our sense of home. To borrow the words of the narrator of “Ring of Earth,” it shows us “another way to see.”

Laura Dennis is a Kentucky writer, mother, Mimi, and professor with family roots in northern Appalachia. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Change Seven, Northern Appalachia Review, The McNeese Review, Still: The Journal, and The Red Branch Review. She reviews books for several publications and co-edits book reviews for MER. She enjoys music, photography, hiking, and spending time with her friends, family, and pets.

Read all of Still: The Journal'past reviews


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