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Nancy Culpepper: Storiesby Bobbie Ann Mason
Synopses & Reviews
Kentucky native Nancy Culpepper boldly left home to attend school in Massachusetts, married a Yankee, and raised her son in the Northeast. “One day I was feeding chickens and listening to Hank Williams and the next day I was expected to know what wines went with what,” she tells her husband, Jack. Yet no matter where she travels, her rural southern heritage is never far from her thoughts, her habits, and her heart.
Nancy is on a lifelong quest to understand her place in the world. Returning home to the family farm, she searches for photographic evidence of an ancestor bearing her own name. Still in her jeans, she brings home strange ideas and an assertiveness she learned up north.
Always adventurous, Nancy travels far and wide–searching, seeking. The narrative sweep of her life traverses the turbulent sixties, the Vietnam War, the eighties and the foreboding death of John Lennon, and finally the new millennium–when a self-assured Nancy finally emerges. These humorous and often touching stories recount her courtship and marriage to Jack, her relationship with her precocious son, and the deep, loving bond between her parents, Spence and Lila Culpepper. Eventually Nancys marriage is threatened by a cultural divide that plagued her and Jack from the start. But when she inherits the Culpepper family farm and discovers more pieces of her ancestral puzzle, she realizes that her life is assuming its proper shape. Later, standing on a lonely mountain in England, she sees the world from a surprising perspective.
Bestselling author Bobbie Ann Masons prizewinning Nancy Culpepper chronicles have appeared in The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, The Southern Review, and other distinguished literary anthologies. She has compiled these stories into one definitive collection, which includes the novella Spence + Lila, two new, never-before-published stories, and one Pushcart Prize winner. Heartfelt and thought-provoking, Nancy Culpepper is a poignant depiction of change and growth in a modern-day heroine.
"A somber, slow-going drama in stories by award-winning author Mason (An Atomic Romance) follows a Kentucky farm family's quiet changes over the decades. When the first story begins in 1980, Nancy, the elder daughter of the Culpepper family, is in her late 30s, has an eight-year-old son with husband Jack Cleveland (a Yankee) and lives outside Philadelphia. Returning to the family farm to help her parents, Lila and Spence, move Granny into a nursing home, Nancy concerns herself with old photographs buried in Granny's house that feature Nancy's namesake, a long-lost aunt whom no one seems to know anything about. Subsequent stories deal with Granny's death, the decline and death of Jack's dog, the building tension between Nancy and Jack — both yearning for the spontaneity of their swinging '60s courtship — and the fate of the Culpepper farm. In the longest story, Lila is diagnosed with breast cancer, undergoes surgery and is lovingly nursed by Spence, Nancy and her sister, Cat. Though detailed and honest in its depiction of illness and loss and skillful in handling Nancy's lingering discomfort with the North, Mason's novel-in-stories lacks her usual sparkle. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Nancy Culpepper, the heroine of this thoughtful, achingly nostalgic collection of short stories that reads like a novel, is a smarter-than-average woman coming of age in the 1960s, when, with unusual vigor, a whole generation became convinced that they were smarter, better, hipper and wiser than their parents. In Nancy's case, it just might be true. She has come to the Northeast for graduate... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) school and will soon marry Jack, a fine-arts photographer. For generations, her own family has farmed in Kentucky. When Nancy first brings her Yankee fiance home for dinner, it's an occasion of great nervousness: 'The vegetables were soaked in bacon grease, and Jack took small helpings. ... Mom had gathered poke, because it was spring, and she said to Jack, "I bet you don't eat poke salet up there."' Nancy explains that poke is a weed; her father says that it can be poisonous if it gets too big, Nancy points out that her dad is teasing, and her mom responds: 'Wouldn't that be something? They'll say up there I tried to poison your boyfriend the minute I met him!' Jack, in his pseudo-sophisticated hippie shirt, blushes. Nancy looks at the plastic flowers on the windowsill. She's educated now, so it would seem, and worldly; vegetables in bacon grease and plastic flowers instead of real ones creep her out. Yet Nancy loves the farm, the barn, even her cranky old grandma. For the duration of her life, she'll be obsessed with where she came from and what that provenance might mean. Who are these people who have endured such poverty and display such naivete? And by extension, what is her own proper place in the world? Nancy's parents are a mystery to her. But she goes on with her own life as a successful member of the professional middle class. She becomes a historian; her husband goes on with his photography; they have a pleasant son named Robert. Then Nancy's paternal grandmother finally dies, and it looks as if Nancy's parents — Spence and Lila — will get their chance to enjoy life, as the saying goes. But Lila soon develops breast cancer. Because the year is 1985 and less-invasive techniques are rare, the doctor recommends a full mastectomy. The author's point of view shifts, and we see Lila and Spence not as stereotypical country bumpkins but as a man and woman who are still lovers and best friends, fearful and stoical. The Culpepper family gathers around: Lila's son Lee, who has a wife and two kids; another daughter, Cat, who's gone through a devastating divorce; and Nancy, the oldest, who makes the trip south without her estranged husband or her son. The Culpeppers laugh, wait for tests, kid around. Mostly, Spence stays home at the farm. He can't stand it — that Lila will be losing a breast, that she's got cancer, that someday she'll die. But that's what the author — a Pulitzer Prize finalist who also wrote 'In Country' and 'An Atomic Romance' — is getting at. All of us are born, live out our lives, snatch whatever joy we can from wherever we can find it. We learn (or don't) to live with our own disappointments and regrets, and then we die. In the hospital, when Cat is fixing Lila's hair, she suddenly says, 'Mom, I know I didn't do the right things the right way. I should have gone to college and not married so young. ... It's not your fault I didn't turn out right. You're the sweetest mother in the world, and I'll never be as good as you.' And that's what we have at the end of things: love and disappointment, and generally a combination of the two. But then, of course, there's the urge to transcend all that, to go up in a plane, climb a mountain, get out of a life so harrowing and so close to the ground. Toward the end of the book, Nancy learns from a shoe box of letters about a pair of long-dead great-aunts, one married to a harsh farmer, one given to fits. The two heard from a mysterious correspondent that they might be heirs to the island of Manhattan, and they fell for it, giving precious quarters and dollars to a crook who was never caught. One sister died of the breast cancer that will afflict Lila years later; the other despaired: 'Her imagination churned with ... little wants, so much removed from the grease can, the slop jar, the iron skillet, the lye soap.' And yet, after three generations, Lila's son Lee has hundreds of so-called modern conveniences, and he, too, is smothered in routine, in unloved objects that, taken all together, make up his prison. This book reads with perfect ease, in contrast to the hard, hard world it evokes. Nancy, even as a grown-up, will remember: 'Inside the old wash house, her mother was feeding print dresses through the wringer of the washing machine. Outside the wash house, Nancy's grandmother was stirring boiling overalls with a broomstick, while a fire smoldered beneath the iron kettle. Nearby, Nancy, a child, was flinging underwear and washrags onto the thorny, overgrown quince bush to dry.' By the end, Nancy has earned all the consolations that the life of the mind offers. She and her husband travel England's Lake District, discussing Wordsworth and Coleridge. But what do these estimable poets have to do, really, with the girl who grew up in the unforgiving, hardscrabble American South? We all talk glibly about high and low and pop culture; our parents sometimes embarrass us, and we sometimes embarrass our children. But where do we come from, especially here, in young, upstart America? Who are we, beyond a handful of genes and another handful of random circumstance? 'Nancy Culpepper' doesn't give us any answers, but it asks these questions artfully, respectfully, beautifully." Reviewed by Carolyn See, who may be reached at carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Bestselling author Mason compiles her prizewinning Nancy Culpepper chronicles into one definitive collection, which includes the novella "Spence + Lila," two new, never-before-published stories, and one Pushcart Prize winner.
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