Tragedies beget heroic acts large and small that can unveil a person's character or profoundly change how they approach life. Award-winning author Ellen Gilchrist explores human nature and survival instincts in her latest book, Acts of God (Algonquin Books, April 2014, $23.95), a collection of 10 short stories about Southern characters dealing with things they can't control: tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, aging, disease and death. How we react to such tragedies is the allure, and the stories' lessons are subtle and intelligently presented.
With her trademark narrative style, Gilchrist weaves engaging tales about people who perform exceptional acts of kindness as part of their instinctual nature: because it's the right thing to do. That was the case in "Hopedale, A History in Four Acts," the story of an 8-year-old black boy who was taken in by the McCamey family, white Mississippi farmers — strangers at the time — after his parents died in a flood at the plantation where they lived. The boy, Eli Naylor, lived on the farm for the rest of his life and was buried alongside the rest of the McCamey family. An exception to do-gooding is "The Dogs," a series of terse letters circulated among persnickety neighbors.
The stories aren't simple, though they are quick reads, and there are few revelations or real surprises. Still, the reader comes away with a feeling of optimism. Part of Gilchrist's success lies in her ability to make her characters authentic and believable, like people you might run into regularly at the grocery store, or with whom you can emphathize. Those talents are what earned Gilchrist the National Book Award for her 1984 collection of short stories, Victory Over Japan. Her portfolio includes 20 works, including novels, memoirs, poems and short stories.
The attitude of Acts of God can perhaps best be summarized in the words of David Haver, a paramedic in the story "High Water," who was attending a convention in New Orleans when the levees failed following Hurricane Katrina and stayed to rescue patients from hospitals downtown: "Some people are heroes and some plot, some lie and cheat and steal, and some carry morbidly obese patients up six flights of stairs so they can be medevaced to hospitals and kept alive to eat another day," he says. "The human race. You have to love it and wish it well and not preach or think you have any reason to think you are better than anyone else."