Book Review: A brilliant new story collection by Jolene McIlwain awaits in 'Sidle Creek'

This cover image released by Melville House shows "Sidle Creek" by Jolene McIlwain. (Melville House via AP)

“Sidle Creek,” by Jolene McIlwain (Melville House)

Lately, the news out of rural Appalachia has not been good: a train derailment, toxic chemicals, the opioid epidemic, deaths of despair. In contrast to all of that, Jolene McIlwain has written a stunning new collection of short fiction that presents a region known for hunting, fishing, fracking and Rolling Rock beer in all of its tender and terrifying complexity.

In the title story, a father places warm stones from Sidle Creek on his daughter’s belly to relieve the debilitating cramps of endometriosis. A retired math professor in “The Fractal Geometry of Grief” builds a glass shelter on his wooded property to protect a doe he fell in love with after his wife’s death. In “Loosed” a man small “in position, stature and intelligence” earns money staging cockfights, then dogfights, and then, in a horrifying twist, fights between his four young sons because those are the most exciting of all to the rich, powerful men who bet on them.

A striking number of the 22 stories in the book feature the distinctive voices of young girls and women and center the experiences of pregnancy, childbirth and infertility. “You Four Are the One” is narrated by Lanie, one of four precocious preteens who spend a summer helping care for a neighbor with a high-risk pregnancy, an all-consuming activity that Lanie declares to be “much more exciting than being at the pool and trying to ignore everyone bikinied who’d `developed.’”

The first-person-plural of the story is only one of the thrilling narrative devices that McIlwain uses to tell her linked stories. Some are short enough to qualify as flash fiction, others as lyrical as poetry. Still others make daring leaps in time like “Seeds,” told from the point of view of a man looking at a childhood picture of his recently deceased wife and imagining the traumatic life, “beaten speckled plum” by an abusive stepfather, that lay ahead for her.

Characters in a few stories pop up in others but what truly knits the collection together is McIlwain’s reverence for and knowledge of the natural world. Whether she is writing about a couple that reads prophecies on the shells of red-winged blackbirds or an Italian grandma who believes a garlic necklace is a cure-all, McIlwain brings to life a luminous world of plants and animals that even the extraction industries, sleazy bettors and smooth-talking city hunters “with slick cars and six-figure salaries” cannot destroy.