Thirteen years ago, author Ellen Gilchrist did a collection of stories arranged in chronological order and devoted entirely to members of the Hand family. We meet the precocious cousin Rhoda Manning at the age of 8, defying her older brothers and sisters at age 10, trying to lose her virginity at age 14 and succeeding two years later. Our last view of her comes more than 40 years later, when she is running off to Florence, Italy, with a young lover.
Gilchrist's latest collection, "Acts of God," features Rhoda just once, as a querulous woman of 67 complaining to a new neighbor about his barking dogs. He writes a snippy letter back, on legal stationery, dismissing her objections. In a series of letters -- the story is all letters -- she enlists the support of other neighbors, writes to her lawyer and discovers that one recent arrival is a writer, too, and a handsome one at that. As the story ends, the dogs have been removed and she is telling her lawyer, "No, I am not getting laid but I am thinking about it. Just one more time and then I'll quit for good."
The Hand family is referred to only one other time -- when Louise Hand, a documentary filmmaker who has joined two old friends for a vacation in Tuscany, Italy, finds them all stuck at London's Heathrow Airport because of a bomb scare. They meet several men, one of whom turns out to be related to an aunt named Anna Hand, a successful writer who killed herself.
My favorite in Gilchrist's latest collection is the title story, which tells of Will and Amelie McCraney, who fell in love in the eighth grade and are still sweethearts at age 86. To their dismay, their lives have been taken over by their children, who have -- against their will -- hired a live-in sitter to supervise their behavior and make sure that they do not drive their car. The sitter is delayed by Hurricane Katrina, and Will suggests they defy orders and drive to the new Winn-Dixie for some forbidden foods, like bacon and ice cream. Distracted in the car because his wife has just put her hand on his thigh, Will veers off the road and smashes into a concrete pillar, killing them both.
"How could they have done this to us?" wails one daughter, who calls them "old fools" and considers their accident just more proof of their vast selfishness. No one seems to care that they died together, as they wished, still very much in love.
The next story is also affected by a storm, a tornado that rips apart a small town in Arkansas. A 16-year-old named Marie volunteers to help and is present when a baby is rescued. Marie appears on television and attracts the attention of an older boy she's been after.
In "Collateral," Carly Dixon is called up by the National Guard to help survivors of Katrina in New Orleans. She rescues some people, becomes a kind of minor celebrity and falls in love with her son's football coach. It makes for a very sweet love story involving nice people, which is true of many of these varied tales. One, in fact, is titled "A Love Story," and tells about a couple who do not connect until they are older. Their spouses of 40 years are gone, and they have faith that this second chance will pay off. "I loved my wife and now I love you," the man says. "I don't change my mind about something that important." The woman is also confident about their future. "He will be there and yes, it will be OK because love is OK. Love is redeemable. You get your money back from love and you get to keep it, too. Think. I hope and pray."
"Funny, wise and wonderful," said one reviewer of "Acts of God," and I could not say it better. The Washington Post called Gilchrist "a national cultural treasure," and this collection proves it once again.