Former Poet Laureate Writes Even More Wonderful Fiction
Could Fred Chappell be an even better storyteller than he is a poet?
That kind of assertion could get you in trouble with Chappell's adoring poetry fans, who think of him always as North Carolina's poet laureate, even though his term ended in 2003.
Chappell is one of the rare poets whose excellence is celebrated both by his fellow poets and a significant public following. So there is no denying that he is a great poet.
But when he turns his poetry-tuned -wordsmithing to his inventive, imaginative, and place-based stories, something even better than his poetry is the result, as demonstrated in his new book, "Ancestors and Others: New and Selected Stories."
The new book collects a variety of 21 stories - mostly previously published. "Variety" is an insufficient description of the different experiences that Chappell gives his readers, taking them from the North Carolina mountains of the recent past to Sweden, France and England centuries ago; from North Carolina's "good old boys" to the composer Haydn; from Newton's theories to how to kill a deer.
After reading each story, I wanted to call some friend to say, "Fred Chappell wrote a short story especially for you."
I want my hunting friends Doug Lay and Wendell Merritt to read "Tradition," which takes its hero from his group into a deer blind so cold, as described by Chappell, that this reader started to shake.
For Peter White, director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, "Linnaeus Forgets" is perfect. Chappell takes us to Sweden in 1758 where Carl Linnaeus, the designer of plant classification systems, discovers a plant that houses a community of thousands of tiny humanlike creatures.
My minister, Bob Dunham, could read the short, short story "Judas" and maybe explain Judas' comment that Jesus was "simply goofy, a nut. ... That was the whole trouble, you know. His kind of madness is -contagious."
Retired music professor Tom Warburton and former New York Philharmonic lead oboist Joe Robinson would delight in "Moments of Light," in which Haydn's visit to Herschel's (the -discoverer of Uranus and also an oboist) observatory led to the composition of "The Creation."
The despair that follows the loss of a best friend in a deadly accident as described in "Duet" would be familiar to a psychiatrist like Robert Bashford, who would also understand the power of the friend's music at graveside to give comfort and relief.
The appearance of three genetically reconstructed Civil War soldiers in "Ancestors" would thoroughly entertain Civil War enthusiast Alan Stephenson.
The North Carolina Collection's Bob Anthony could identify with the librarian in "The Lodger." A dead poet tries to infiltrate and take over the librarian's life.
Cliff Butler, who grew up in a small tobacco town, could follow the country furniture store delivery team hauling a new freezer, the surprise "Christmas Gift" for a farmer's wife, who had ironed tobacco leaves to get high bids of the buyers for her husband's crop.
It is easy to tag Chappell's stories to prospective men readers. But Chappell appeals to women, too, especially those who want to understand men and their crazy doings and firm friendships. Some stories are aimed right at women, as in "Gift of Roses," the poignant tale of a blind woman who rescues heritage roses. Greensboro's Margaret Arbuckle, who once tried to save an ancient rose bush from the advancing waters of Lake Norman, might understand.
If there is a problem with Chappell's stories, it is a consequence of their incredible variety. Not every story will be right for everybody. But even if one or two stories do not exactly suit a reader, it is a small price to pay for the pleasure of reading the "poetic prose" of a master storywriter.
D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV's "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. This Sunday's (July 11) guest is Barry Popkin, author of "The World Is Fat."
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