|The Devil Is in the Details
A look at one of Sharyn's short stories in "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."
by Cathy Spence, a teacher in Rocky Mount, Virginia.
Reading any one of Sharyn McCrumb's works is much like studying a handmade quilt. While the overall theme may be obvious at first glance, the real effect is felt in the subtle details. On a quilt, each patch is deliberately placed to convey the pattern; each stitch is then purposefully sewn to highlight and hold the pattern together. Similarly, in Sharyn's works, the word plays, the characters, and the allusions all serve to communicate the theme. One of her early short stories, "The Luncheon," is a prime example of this.
The plot of "The Luncheon" is a fairly simple one. The main character, Miriam, has discovered that her husband is planning to sell their rural property to a local university to use as a dumping ground for toxic wastes generated by its science departments. Unable to abide a decision that will endanger the lives of their neighbors and people for whom she cares Miriam takes matters into her own hands.
On its surface, the story seems little more than a tale of intrigue with a darkly ironic ending. A closer reading suggests several different threads running through the plot, such as the ongoing battle of the sexes or the assault on the Appalachian way of life by outside interests. Like a master quilter, however, Sharyn has used stitches that show the true pattern of her work, in this case the sacrifice of one for the good of many.
"The Luncheon" employs allusions to the Exodus account of the first Passover celebration. Miriam, the main character, shares a name with the sister of the prophet Moses. The restaurant in which Miriam meets her co-workers is called the Post and Lentils, a word play on where the blood of the Passover lamb was to be placed. The bitter herbs of the Passover meal are alluded to in the plant lore which Miriam learns from her elderly neighbors and which will ultimately be the means of her husband's death. And in a dark twist on the redemptive work of Passover, Miriam's husband Andrew is himself to be the sacrificial lamb which will keep the angel of death passing by their neighbors.
Attention to detail, to the small intricacies, is what separates the artist from the mere craftsman. It is precisely this attention that makes Sharyn's works so rich. As a writer, Sharyn does not cater to the lowest common denominator among her readers. The one who approaches her works with an active mind is the one who finds the most satisfaction in them.
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