“Tongues of Flame”
And suddenly the whole Pandora’s box of race, with all the unconscious, unintended, even unrecognized withholdings of respect, status, privilege, even rights we never thought about, much less understood at the time, embedded as they were in custom and usage, would open up to silence us completely.
Most authors don’t publish their first collection of short stories in their seventh decade, but Mary Ward Brown was never one to follow a well laid out path in life. Born in 1917 in the deep south (Alabama), Brown was the only daughter of a couple who owned (and worked) a 3,000 acre farm and ran the local general store. Brown attended Judson College, married, had a son, and then moved back to the family farm. The demands of farm life, marriage, and motherhood kept Brown from writing fiction until her later years after her husband passed away. In middle age, Brown started taking creative writing courses and in 1986, Tongues of Flame – a collection of 11 short stories – was published and subsequently awarded the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for the best first book of fiction by an American author.
The collection of short stories tell of life in the rural south when gender expectations, race, class, and religion narrowly defined the lives of men and women in a small Alabama town. Invariably, conflict, ignorance, and outside factors reveal the tragic suffering of characters caught in the rigidity of southern society. In New Dresses, two women of different generations and backgrounds bound together by a man, do what many mothers and daughter-in-laws do: they go shopping but instead of sharing the experience, the shopping trip displays the ignorance and narcissism of youth from another time and place.
In Good-Bye, Cliff, the author shows the reader that ignorance is not reserved for the young when an elderly woman had to scrimp and save to buy a tombstone for her dead husband who was not the man she thought he was. But, in The Amaryllis, the physical realities of old age are front and center when a retired judge discovers the fleeting wonder of an Amaryllis in bloom and sees its lifespan as a metaphor of his own life.
Brown also shows the reader that white southern society has invisible social boundaries designed to maintain the status quo despite economic realities. In The Barbecue, the reader meets Tom and Martha Moore , a middle-aged couple who moved to a small southern town 30 years ago. With commitment and hard work, they prospered: buying and operating Moore’s Farm and General Store, and accumulating 3,000 acres of farmland (remarkably similar to the author’s own parents). Although well-liked, the Moores are still outsiders which becomes very apparent one Saturday afternoon at the store when the inherited social structure of the town coincides with good business practices.
In Disturber of the Peace, a young woman whose engagement was broken weeks before the wedding, is haunted by the illuminated cross from the Methodist Church across the street in the small town where her ex-fiance’s family figures prominently.
Racial tension looms large in Brown’s work with the war lines blurred between generations. In Fruit of the Season, the setting is the summer of 1959 when three young black children are charged with picking jewberries, first for their mother and then for the white woman their mother works for. Reminiscent of the sweet potato pie scene in “The Help,” Fruit of the Season shows the reader that racial tension is not limited to adults. And, in Beyond New Forks, the reader meets a middle-aged woman determined to hire the granddaughter of her retired maid/cook only to realize her own children had very different options in a town where race defines opportunities. In Let Him Live, the reader observes a community in crisis when a beloved white judge faces death, in the post civil rights era of the mid-1980’s.
In a story that goes beyond race, The Cure shows how a common passion can cross formal gender, economic, and racial lines when an elderly, ailing black mother of three grown daughters demands to be taken care of by the white, elderly alcoholic doctor who treated her years ago. And, in Tongues of Flame, which is also the name of a short story in the book, the author reveals the effects of do-gooders in a church beset by declining attendance and alcoholism.
The most unique short story in the collection is The Black Dog – a heartbreaking story of hope that shows the realities of farm life and the limits of human compassion when faced with inconvenience. A haunting story that will make most readers think twice before turning on a soul in need.
Often times, short stores have a twist on the last page or two but that is not the case with Mary Ward Brown’s short stories. There are few surprises in Brown’s writings, which lend an authenticity to the stories that take place in a small southern town where everyone lives by and knows what is acceptable and what isn’t.