In the opening pages of Ramona Reeves’ book of linked short stories, It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories, she pays tribute to two female writers from the American South, Mary Ward Brown and Ellen Glasgow. She includes a quote from each in her epigraph, just after the dedication page. For Brown, “class is everywhere in the South” and, for Glasgow, place is that “brooding spirit” beneath which “there is the whole movement of life.”
These quotations are signs of what is to come in It Falls Gently All Around, as Reeves explores the themes of place, class, and more just as Brown and Glasgow have. Mary Ward Brown, 1917-2013, of Alabama, where I grew up, is known for precision and smoothness in her writing and recognized for prompting a progressive understanding of racial and social inequality. Ellen Glasgow, 1873-1945, of Richmond, Virginia, where I live now, is known for her realistic depiction of the South, the juxtaposition of humans, nature, and stories of female independence. I find the influence of both authors in Reeves.
It’s summer in Mobile, 2005, when we meet our first character, Babbie. She’s finishing a cigarette outside the ER where she works one of her two jobs to support her children as a single mother. Reeves thoughtfully arranges the stories in non-chronological order, weaving in and out of the intricate patterns of life in the South. Each story takes place between 2004 and 2018, with one dip into the more distant past of 1984, the title piece. Here readers get the backstory on two of the central characters, Babbie and Rowan, and their failed relationship.
An array of personalities populate the pages. We meet them in a truck stop, a hospital, and a country club that’s past its prime. We enter track homes and double wides and find that ex’s double as friends in a small town. We learn that truck drivers can become yoga instructors. There’s a baby shower. Blessings are withheld and extended in unexpected ways. Reeves shows how kinship can be unconventional. It’s Alabama, so there’s also a church or two, preachers, a tornado, and a constant tension between the past and present.
I can’t help but smile at the Baptist preacher whose daughter is having a baby with her female partner: I “couldn’t love her any less,” he confesses, and “maybe I love her more.” The two women consider baptism for their child, but “Sammie Jo’s people grew into adults who gave their entire bodies to water while Corrine’s people did everything they could to avoid getting wet.” Corrine wonders how is it possible to both love and despise tradition: “She was not equipped to live in a completely new world, nor was she able to live in the old one.” I can relate.
The characters steal my heart. I weep as Fay is led to a brand new Thunderbird by her late husband, “It’s all open road, honey,” he says, just before she’s pulled out of a parked car and taken back to her room. Her mind is failing but her love is sure. She’s seen where she is headed. Love that strong can take us places.
The theme of trees is one of many through lines linking the short stories, weaving together the past and the present, love of place, and freedom and constraint. In the final story, Babbie is driving little Tabitha to church and as they wind their way through Mobile’s varied neighborhoods they come across “a four-lane road canopied by old and stubborn oaks,” forming a tunnel of green “meant to convince her of someone’s idea of the South, what it once was or might have been.” The live oaks represent “the dearly and not so dearly departed,” while pin oaks and magnolia trees become indicators of vitality or blight. In their branches, Babbie sees a tangled history, “worse than her own.” For me, trees symbolize the arc of history that precedes and extends beyond a single human life. It’s a messy past, one we cannot sort out alone, and one which has the potential to prompt growth if we have the courage to sustain human connection across long standing barriers.
What makes for a satisfying read? When you put the book down and sigh with a contented longing. All is not tied up in a rainbow ribboned package, but there is bittersweet pleasure in having walked alongside these characters for a time. I found myself believing that if they can grow, maybe I can, too. Love wins may be too cryptic and cliche for these unfolding stories but ultimately, it’s the truth. These are rich stories, prompting us to recall our own hopes and failures and our lost and found loves. This is a beautiful first book. I look forward to the next one.
It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories
By Ramona Reeves
University of Pittsburgh Press
Published October 4, 2022