When I think of Kentucky, I think of scarred mountain tops and brother fighting against brother, gorgeous green hills and rich food and folkways. When I started a story cycle that dealt with a photographer from Boston documenting the bicentennial, I wasn’t surprised to find that I set the stories in Kentucky.
My stories are Kentucky stories. They deal with rich and poor, bitter and sweet. I knew that with stories set in Kentucky my protagonist would find a beautiful but broken landscape, characters who defied expectations and a place steeped in tradition, but ready meet the challenges of modern life.
My stories encompass the contradictions of Kentucky, our love of and connection to a land that has been ravaged and our aspirations for a better life. My protagonist Jasper Macks takes photos of a mountain top ravaged by mining as he listens to Hal Emerson tell the story of a coal sludge flood that devastated an entire community. Jasper befriends Terri, a young waitress with a depressed mother, who reads poetry between serving up plates of food at the diner and dreams of working as a librarian. He joins estranged brothers on a hunting trip and witnesses a ritual burial that links the men to the land.
Kentucky stories are stories of connection and community. There are stories in my collection about the desire to be a part of a community, including the title story “Religion,” in which a virgin accidentally joins a breast feeder’s group and decided to stay. There is “May Apples,” in which a grandfather teaches his artistic grandson to love the land.
He picked up his paintbrush and mixed a yellow, the color of corn silks,
for her hair. His grandfather had taken him into the cornfield when he
was small. He held David level with the plants and taught him how to
check for holes left in the stalks by sugarcane beetles.
Kentucky stories are about coming home and finding home. In another story, a young boy from Vietnam lays his demons to rest in the Kentucky countryside as a burning barn recalls the death of his parents in a fire. In another, a mailman longs to be part of the culture change of the 60s, but finds the hippie life he aspires to may not match his expectations.
I’m proud to be a Kentucky writer and tell stories that draw on the complex and rich heritage of the Bluegrass state. I’m proud to add my voice to those that came before Berry, Mason, Kingsolver, Lyon, Naslund and so many others.
On April 25, Kentucky Writers’ Day, writers across the state will be celebrating their own Kentucky stories and those that have come before. It is an honor to have this day set aside to recognize the artistry of Kentucky writers. I plan to share the work of my favorite Kentucky writers that day via social media. I hope that you’ll take a moment that day to read and share the work of Kentucky writers and continue to do so long after the celebration is over.
Stories from Ellen Birkett Morris’s unpublished collection, “Religion & Other Stories,” have been published in Antioch Review, Shenandoah Review, Notre Dame Review and South Carolina Review. “May Apples” from this collection is the winner of the 2015 Bevel Summers Prize for short fiction.