By David Madden
It is unusually appropriate that a review of Robert Morgan’s fifth book of short stories, As Rain Turns to Snow, focus upon the lucidly suggestive titles and the alluring first sentences. The title story is a fine example. “We’ll meet at the hollow tree by the Little River Road,” Dr. Lewis had said. “That way we can approach the house through the woods and nobody will hear a thing until we open the front door.”
It is difficult to imagine anyone soaking up the opening lines of a Morgan story without plunging into it, as in the third one, “Halcyon Acres.” “From the time she welcomed me at the door, it was clear Gloria knew what was going to happen, or it was clear she thought she knew what was going to happen. There was a boldness about the woman that was both scary and thrilling.”
Given what those lines do to the reader, one may justly expect Morgan to do it again, as early as in the next story, “The Church of the Ascension.” “I never thought I’d see thirty naked grownups in an Episcopalian Chapel.” Morgan often plunges the reader into medias res, without the backstory overload that opens many short stories.
Morgan is a storyteller in the oral story-telling tradition of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Even so, one senses in his fiction the sophisticated literary sensibility that one finds in many Southern writers, such as Fred Chappell, Faulkner, Evelyn Scott, and Doris Betts.
Morgan’s style—succinct, concrete, laced with well-conceived lyricism and imagery—and his natural dialog justify the adjective “very readable.” And for a bag of stories set mostly in Morgan’s native Western North Carolina small towns and rural areas, “variety” is the descriptive word most just.
The most recent of Morgan’s six novels, Chasing the North Star, won the Southern Book Award in historical fiction. That he has published four works of history, biography, literary essays, and 16 volumes of poetry enable me, gladly, not to call him a writer of a single genre. And his newest venture is playwriting.
David Madden (ΦBK, University of Tennessee, 1979) is the author of more than 50 books of fiction and nonfiction. Madden’s latest book is Marble Goddesses and Mortal Flesh: Four Novellas (University of Tennessee Press, 2017). This is his 15th work of fiction.