Rhoda Manning loves her daddy. She invariably disobeys him, but she loves him as a five-year-old in the first story of this collection, getting in trouble with a gun. She still loves him as a 60-year-old, getting in trouble climbing a tree to retrieve a golden bough so she can descend into the underworld and commune with him. Along the way we too get to know her daddy, Big Dudley. In one story, he takes charge of her wayward, pot-smoking teenaged sons in 1970s New Orleans. In another, he ups and moves to Wyoming and teaches the whole family to ski. In yet another, he sends middle-aged, newly sober Rhoda down the Wind River with her 12-year-old son in a canoe. He's frequently racist, often stubborn, but he's also fiercely protective, forceful, strong, and sensible. "He was always turning out to be right, and when we abandoned the clear paths he wanted us to travel we were always sorry."
Ellen Gilchrist fans may have some trouble recognizing this older, wiser Rhoda Manning, but underneath the sobriety and wisdom, our favorite smart aleck still holds court. "Watch nature videos. See who rules a group of chimpanzees and why. Then decide if you want your president to keep it zipped." Charmed as ever by Ms. Gilchrist's easy, droll storytelling, I realized that getting to know Rhoda over the years in these bite-sized vignettes makes Rhoda seem more alive and genuine than she would if I read an entire novel about her. This way we learn about her in bits and pieces, over time, the way we learn about people in real life.
There are Rhoda-less stories, too. One of them is sufficiently prescient of the events of September 11, 2001, that the author notes in a foreword that it was written in the fall of 2000. That particular piece features new characters, but the last story is in the voice of Traceleen, one of my longtime favorite Gilchrist creations. A former maid and current friend of a white woman she still calls "Miss Crystal," the Creole Traceleen now studies yoga and Buddhism. These disciplines stand her in good stead as she confronts the nanny her niece has hired for her precious grandnieces and, later, this nanny's drug-crazed boyfriend. I've always loved Traceleen because she's so dignified and serious, such a wonderful counterpoint to the crazy, selfish behavior of her rich employers. "I sighed. Once again lack of understanding had caused a problem. Could I find a way to set things right? It would have to begin in my own heart, as Jesus taught and I sometimes know."
These stories often have a fairy tale quality about them, and Ms. Gilchrist dispenses the lessons subtly and gently. There is real wisdom here, in simple, conversational prose. It's gratifying to see these characters settling down, to learn what they've learned. "Why in the name of God after all these years have I decided this is funny? Because everyone lived through it. Because no one died or was maimed or had their lives ruined."
Nearly everyone in these stories is well-off, and some are very rich. The women are gorgeous and talented, if sometimes troubled by men, children, diet pills, Arab terrorists, and unwanted pregnancy. If I had one tiny quibble, I'd like to see what Ms. Gilchrist would do with more ordinary characters --- those of us not so rich and not so beautiful. But that's not a flaw --- merely curiosity stimulated by a mature writer at the top of her form.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol (firstname.lastname@example.org) on September 1, 2002
I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting With My Daddy