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Book review: Mattaponi Queen

by John H. Harris

There is a new voice on the American literary scene and it speaks with an eastern Virginia accent. The voice belongs to Belle Boggs, who grew up in King William County, attended Virginia Commonwealth University, and earned a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing from the University of California at Irvine. She learned her craft well in that faraway place, for she has written an outstanding collection of short stories to which she has given the evocative title “Mattaponi Queen.”

Mattaponi Queen: Stories. By Belle Boggs. 225 pp. Graywolf Press. $15. Find it on Amazon.

In 2009 Mattaponi Queen received the Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize for Fiction, which the Middlebury College Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference awards annually to the work of an emerging writer. The prize includes publication of the winning entry by the prestigious Graywolf Press.

With two exceptions, all the stories in Mattaponi Queen are set in King William or King and Queen County, many of them on or near the Mattaponi Indian Reservation in King William. Ms. Boggs makes numerous references in her stories to the towns and cities of eastern Virginia—Deltaville, Urbanna, Saluda, West Point, Tappahannock, Richmond, and Fredericksburg, to name the most obvious. 

State Route 30 serves as an avenue of escape, a road to redemption, or a pathway to acceptance and love for many of the characters. Several of them—some Native American, some African-American, some white—appear in more than one of the book’s 12 stories. These characters manage to make their way in a fallen world, often within sight of the Edenic banks of the Mattaponi River, and some even achieve a semblance of happiness and joy.

There’s Ronnie in “Good News for a Hard Time,” a young woman who gave up her studies at an expensive art school in Savannah when her debt became overwhelming and returned home to marry Jeremy, a local boy she knew in high school. Now she is pregnant, and Jeremy is recuperating at Walter Reed Hospital after a brief stint with the Army in Iraq, where most of his right arm was blown away. Ronnie’s pregnancy becomes a hopeful symbol of new life and an emblem of renewed commitment to her now-damaged husband, if only she can find the proper moment to tell him that he will be a father soon.

 There is Mrs. Cora Tyler “Cutie” Young, a cantankerous octogenarian whose late husband’s family once held sway over the county and who now is searching obsessively for her recently stolen collection of silverware in every antique store and pawnshop that her 1982 Ford Country Squire can reach. Loretta Johnson, a proud African-American woman and Cutie’s nurse, reluctantly accompanies her in this task and drives the car. Loretta’s great-niece, Tamara, just might be the unacknowledged offspring of Cutie’s son. She is the wife of a day laborer named Charlie, who is the likely thief of Cutie’s silver. Loretta is the coy and masterful narrator of “Imperial Chrysanthemum,” the story that delineates this intricate web of assumptions and facts and which gets its name from the pattern of Cutie’s missing silverware.

Loretta also figures prominently in the collection’s namesake story about a 1920s riverboat that once carried partying white folks “up and down the river like a floating wedding cake” (to quote Loretta) between Walkerton and Urbanna. It now sits tied to a pier, unused and unwanted, except by Loretta. She makes installment payments to the boat’s owner, Mitchell White, who had restored it and presented it to his second wife, Joanne, shortly before she ran off with her yoga instructor. Loretta wants to own the Queen and in so doing confer upon herself a certain regal feeling of self-worth.

And finally, though this brief survey hardly does justice to the full gallery of characters found in the book, there is Marcus Conway in “Homecoming.” Marcus is a well-mannered young man from the projects in Brooklyn who arrives in King William to live with his grandmother after the adults in his life up North have been incarcerated for cocaine possession.  Marcus thrives in his new setting at first. Soon, however, he becomes ensnared in drug dealing himself when the quarterback of the high school football team, on which Marcus has a starring role as a running back when he’s not injured, enlists his help as a drug courier for some shady D.C. characters. Marcus is caught and has to serve sixteen months at a juvenile facility in Richmond, but his future appears hopeful due to the friendship he has established with a full-blooded Mattaponi Indian called “Skinny,” who is estranged from his own son but serves as a father figure for Marcus.

Find a copy of Mattaponi Queen and read it, not just for the fun of seeing familiar place names in the pages of a sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking book, but also for the great insight into the human condition this young author has brought to her work. In reading about these familiar places, you might spot some familiar faces of people confronting life’s adversities and searching for love and understanding.  Indeed, you might find yourself reflected in the pages of this remarkable collection of stories.

Book reviewer John H. Harris is a teacher at Saint Gertrude High School in Richmond who spends many summer weekends in Middlesex County.

posted 08.07.2010

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