Review: Mattaponi Queen

Mattaponi Queen
Belle Boggs
Graywolf Press, 2010
9781555975586
Purchased new trade paperback

“There’s one lady, Nellie Wynn, you know her?” Ronnie asked one day. “Lives over near the post office?”

“Yeah,” Skinny said. “That’s my parents’ old place she lives in.”

“Oh,” Ronnie said. “It’s a nice house. Every day she offers me a cookie out of this enormous Aunt Jemima cookie jar. Blackface and everything, polka-dotted kerchief, big gummy smile. You pull her head off and there’s cookies inside.”

“She gives you cookies?”

“They’re not homemade, like yours,” Ronnie said. “It’s the Aunt Jemima jar. It’s so strange. And then she wants to talk about Pocahontas, how she was raped, and I just sit there.”

“My mom was stuck on Pocahontas too,” Skinny said. “Matoaka, she called her. She said it meant ‘naughty one.’ I guess in hindsight she probably shouldn’t have stepped in like she did. Then my mom would talk about how she broke her father’s heart, running off to England to get put on display.”

“You think she was trying to tell you something?” Ronnie said.

“What do you mean?”

“About women,” she said.

“Hell,” he said. “Where’ve you been all my life to translate this shit?”

—   from “It Won’t Be Long”

I had not intended for my next review here to have so much in common with the last one I wrote, but I could not put this off. Like The Toughest Indian in the World, Belle Boggs‘ debut is a collection of short stories, several of them about Indians. The Indians in Mattaponi Queen, however, are members of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes in eastern Virginia, and they and their non-Indian neighbors, friends, and relatives live in King William and King and Queen counties, near the confluence of the Matta and Poni rivers. It’s an area I’m familiar with, having grown up in Richmond, but do not know well. It was the title that initially caught my attention while browsing at Barnes and Noble earlier this summer. After reading that it had been shortlisted for the 2010 Frank O’Connor Award (according to The Guardian, the world’s richest prize for short story collections), I moved it to the top of my TBR stack. As soon as I started reading, only the demands of nature could induce me to put it down.

What impressed me most about Mattaponi Queen was how effortlessly Boggs introduces her characters. Some appear in only one story, while others are recurring, sometimes in the background and sometimes in a featured role. Skinny Littleton was particularly memorable, and if Boggs decides to return to this area in future works I hope we’ll get to see more of him.

With a few finely-crafted sentences Boggs sketches a portrait of each character that makes it seem as if we’ve already known them all our lives. It’s only a sketch, however, and so she uses the rest of the story to flesh them out, adding shading, contour, and color to bring them vividly to life. By the end of the book, it’s almost as though you’ve acquired a set of new friends without realizing it. In addition to Skinny, the recovering alcoholic gourmand trying to reconnect with his children, there’s Loretta, who’s invested her income from caring for an elderly white woman in a riverboat; Melinda, cheerleading coach, coping with a marital crisis no one could have prepared her for, who finds insight in an exhibit of priceless Fabergé eggs; and Marcus, come down from New York to live with his grandmother after his mother is arrested on a drug bust, who learns that small-town life isn’t quite as uncomplicated as he expected, to name only a few.

In sharing these characters and their stories, Boggs does not indulge in psychoanalysis or pass judgment on their actions, but lets the actions and their consequences speak for themselves. She is empathetic, but not condescending, to either the characters or the reader; she respects their (and our) integrity and autonomy, and does not try to impose foreordained conclusions on the events she narrates.

The apparent effortlessness in Boggs’ characterizations extends to all her writing in Mattaponi Queen. She doesn’t resort to parlor tricks to tell the story, but rather patiently allows it to unfold at its own pace. The stories are streamlined, without a lot of excess baggage, but they’re not spartan; the emphasis is on the story and the characters it reveals, rather than Boggs’ talent as a writer. That said, she is enormously talented, as the accolades she has already received indicate (in addition to being shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award, Mattaponi Queen won the 2009 Bakeless Prize).

There’s a gracefulness to Boggs’ prose that I don’t think I’ve encountered for a long time. Reading Mattaponi Queen was like going for a bike ride after studying for finals, or a long-steady rain after a protracted heat wave, or the sight of a great blue heron wading in a nearby creek: refreshing, cleansing, thrilling—the kind of experience you tuck away for later, to pull out when you wish to remember the way it made you feel the first time. I cannot recommend Mattaponi Queen strongly enough, and eagerly look forward to more from Boggs.

They made their way together down the steps, careful in case of ice. He held her leather-gloved hand in his bare one as she boarded the boat, and she took her time inspecting it as he waited on the pier. She started the engine on the first try. The boat came to life at once, vibrating slightly as blue-white plumes of smoke floated out over the water. She came back out on deck, smiling.

 

She thanked him, smoothed a shawl over her head and shoulders, and tied it in a loose knot to keep out the wind. The water was dark gray, the brown, leafy shore lacy with ice. How much longer would the river even accommodate boats like this? They said the reservoir would take five feet of the river’s depth, but that wasn’t something to take up with a woman who’d spent months paying off an old and outmoded thing like the Mattaponi Queen. She had lasted, though—the men who made her must have never imagined she’d be running today.

 

Instead Mitchell said, “Loretta, do you think women and men both need each other, or is it just men that need women?”

—   from “Mattaponi Queen”

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