Marjorie Maddox started writing poetry as a young girl and kept writing throughout college and graduate school. She shares this life-long love of words as a creative writing instructor at Lock Haven University in central Pennsylvania. This love is evident in her published poetry collections, as well as her most recent publication, What She Was Saying, an amalgam of short stories, flash fiction, and creative nonfiction. This collection, written over a span of two decades, was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter and Eludia book awards, as well as a semifinalist for Black Lawrence Press's Hudson, Eastern Washington University's Spokane, and Leapfrog Press's book prizes.
Staying true to Maddox's roots in poetry, What She Was Saying opens with a poem, setting the tone by showing the reader how writing is sometimes the best form of expression.
I'm not, all fine-toed thought
tip-tripping on this gangplank of tongue,
clumsy and cumbersome in the outside air
of others' ears and expectations
Maddox starts the poem with some alliteration that, if spoken, would end up sounding rather tangled, illustrating how difficult and ineffective speaking can be at times.
Outside the letters, I'm incognito.
A suburbanite. Two toddlers.
A mouthful of stumbling practicality.
You won't see me
till I write.
When words can be thoughtfully crafted and written, a voice can be heard and a person can be seen. This is the case with each of the subjects in What She Was Saying.
"Crowned" is the first story in the collection. This finalist for the 2015 Lascaux Prize in Short Fiction is told by a young girl who moves frequently with her father, a preacher. Her mother passed away giving birth, leaving the pair to move from town to town as they change churches. She describes what it is like being elected the queen of various festivals in each new town and being the minister's daughter. She has done this so many times, she knows how to audition.
I wear a handsewn blouse from the last town's ladies' circle, sky blue the color of innocence with a large strawberry for each collar. The shirt flattens my breasts and falls halfway down my calf-length skirt. It's the right choice. I quote a poem from a Hallmark Mother's Day card. Then, to the tune of "We Gather Together," I trill a song about the town. It's a quick revision to what I performed four towns back. I hold out the last notes long and loud, then smile with all my teeth. The men look at their wives for their reactions. The women nod approvingly.
Throughout the story, the reader feels an unease, as if the narrator is glossing over something ugly with the beauty of the festival pageantry. At one point there is a car accident near their home and the narrator reveals the sleeping arrangements she and her father have when telling about the incident:
It's just across the street and down a bit, and the ambulance sirens blast through the walls of our tiny house and into the one bedroom. Daddy's up first, tugging on some shorts and a WWJD T-shirt. Quick, like that; then he's out the door. I'm right behind him with some shorts over my nightie. No time for a bra.
Later, she describes being in a festival parade with her father driving the car. When a woman in the crowd catches the eye of her father, she tries to reclaim his attention: "I start singing 'A Bicycle Built for Two' for my daddy, so he'll look at me instead, but it's too late. He is already waving at Miss Samuels, his left hand high in the air."
In "Weeds," Maddox brings the ugliness out in the open. The story begins with two young girls enjoying summer as best friends do. The description of the joy of summer fun is bright and happy and captures the feel of youthful delight. Innocence and joy are eventually shattered when one of the girls is molested by an older boy.
Her father kept his eyes closed and his breathing steady. I knew that he was awake, that he had seen the beginning of what I didn't want to know, had perhaps seen it often, and that he would, like I would now also do for years and years, close my eyes, one of us as weak and helpless as the other.
In this piece, Maddox reflects on the powerlessness of everyone in this situation. The innocent young victim cannot stop the violation and the witnesses are not able to protect her.
Among the more serious and heavy stories are a few lighter gems, including "UPS Guy" and "The Wives." Both will elicit a chuckle. "UPS Guy" illustrates the impact the brown truck and its driver can have on people in a neighborhood. It will make the reader wonder what the neighbors think when the UPS guy makes his rounds. "The Wives" shares some interesting insights into the feelings of the women behind some well-known male characters named Peter in nursery rhymes, children's stories, and even the Bible. Maddox offers this when imagining Peter Rabbit's wife:
I'm weary of your crimes: McGregor leering across his fence with gun in hand; your new clothes gone. Peter, sense is not your strength. The kids dream of bullets, blood, and traps, barbed wire, stew; it's lucky if I sleep at all. This has got to stop. The Cottontails come from good stock.
A standout piece in the collection is "Exhibition." The story introduces 75-year-old Mae as she is making a sculpture of herself titled, "Self, Diving." The description of the creation process provides the reader a glimpse into the artist's heart and mind.
Her upcoming exhibit—a retrospective—is two weeks away. "Self, Diving" will be the final piece. What she wants it to express, she is still discovering. She keeps the seaweed in place and looks again at the angle of the head. This is the last form friends and patrons will consider as they return to the ordinary world: a head slightly tucked but moving forward, a body following that determination.
A 75-year-old woman who still wants to move forward with determination is inspiring. Mae never married or had children, but became a family with her friend Eva, a widow, and Eva's daughter, Lauren. Family can be anyone. Mae, Eva, and Lauren illustrate this well. The threads of hope and love are wonderfully woven into this story.
Maddox also pays homage to her great-great-uncle Branch Rickey. Branch Rickey was the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who signed Jackie Robinson. The memoir of Rachel Robinson titled Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait inspired "Rachel Isum Robinson: Snatches and Excerpts." In this piece, Rachel Robinson talks about how she and her husband were treated with taunts, slurs, and death threats when he joined the Dodgers. In spite of this, she still saw hope for a changing world and enjoyed seeing her husband play the game he loved. Maddox writes, "When my love runs his pigeon-toed run, our life is a round, glowing ball of hope. The future shines in the crack of his bat, in the hard-won respect that now surrounds him—with or without his glove—in bright bursts of possibilities."
She goes on to tell about how much she misses her husband after he passed but finds hope in knowing Jackie was an inspiration to many people during and after his life. Jackie Robinson was a person of historical significance and this story was a touching reminder of the other people in his life who were part of his journey.
The flow of these short stories, flash fiction pieces, and poems is smooth. Even though the pieces were written across decades, they were brought together in an order that makes them feel as if they were written in a much shorter timespan with an intentional stream of subjects. The seamlessness of the stories allows each piece to build on the one before, leaving the collection stronger as a whole.