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.

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