Jayne Moore Waldrop
University Press of Kentucky / 2021 / 254 pp / 24.95
Reviewed by Elizabeth Hall Magill
Poet Jayne Moore Waldrop’s first full-length collection of short fiction, Drowned Town, explores themes of dislocation and homecoming via the Land Between the Lakes, a current-day recreational area in southwestern Kentucky. The newly-released collection of linked stories is anchored in the early twenty-first century but periodically flashes back to the time of the area’s development in the 1950s and 60s. Waldrop introduces the concept of “drowned towns”—small towns that the federal government flooded to create the recreational lakes—via the friendship between protagonist Margaret Stark and Cam Wetherford, her best friend from college who grew up in the area in the late 1960s.
In addition to this central friendship, the collection includes a panoply of interesting characters and narratives. Many of these narratives are steeped in a feminist sensibility, allowing readers to perceive events through the eyes of the marginalized. Central to all of the stories is Waldrop’s portrayal of the land, which she encapsulates in poetic descriptions and well-drawn characters.
In the first story, “Dry Ground,” Cam travels from Nashville to her hometown of Sycamore (a replacement for a drowned town) to prepare for her wedding to childhood friend Owen Moss. The book opens with Cam’s experience of her original hometown, which she and her family were forced to abandon when she was seven years old: “There was nothing left, only a few shards of brick and stone, a faint curvature of sky and earth that felt vaguely familiar.” Two stories later, in “Weekend Visitor,” we flash back in time to when Cam is a college student, and we meet Margaret, who has come to visit Cam’s family for a weekend on the lake. Margaret’s outsider’s perspective is like our own: “She viewed the area with the eyes of a weekend visitor who arrived long after the dams were built, the towns were flooded, and the last resident moved out to make way for LBL, as they all now called Land Between the Lakes. As a tourist, she didn’t have to see beyond the scenery.”
At first, Margaret is not likeable: in “Weekend Visitor,” we learn that she is a law partner with a short temper, the kind of woman we tend to label a “bitch.” But in the flashback in which she visits Cam’s parents on the lake, we see Margaret’s vulnerabilities: she was raised with harsh and demanding parents, and has high expectations of herself. These expectations come to bear when Lowell, Cam’s father, is teaching her to water ski. She is uncomfortable and wishes the lesson would end, but he continues to push her. She succeeds at last, only to land in a humiliating moment: “She stood on two skis long enough to qualify as a trip around the bay. When she attempted to cross the wake, she took an ugly spill, more like a cartwheel than a fall. She came up coughing, choking from a mouthful of water, and then aware that she was topless. Her orange bikini top must have slipped off in the impact from the fall.” Margaret saves herself from public embarrassment by finding her top and putting it back on before exiting the water. The moment resonates as a deeply female one: women live in constant fear of bodily exposure, even as we are working to excel.
As the book progresses, so does Margaret’s character. In “Wedding Chapel,” we see another moment of vulnerability after she mistreats an employee at a spa. She seems self-absorbed until we understand that she, like all women, is hypercritical of her appearance: “She sighed as she checked out her nails and saw even more chipping, as if her hands were taunting her for such bad planning.” In the same story, Margaret is dismissive and classist when she meets Neville, Owen’s best man. After Neville corrects her assumption that he is a construction worker, the two grow closer as she lets down her guard with him throughout the course of several stories.
Drowned Town is a collection that anyone interested in the principles of social justice will enjoy. Although Margaret’s perspective shapes nine of the sixteen stories, the others in the collection also include feminist moments and messages. For example, in “Drift,” a young mother, Kate, mourns a stillbirth and several miscarriages. Her husband, David, wants to support her, but recognizes that he cannot be the male rescuer; he can only be her loving partner. And in one of the strongest stories in the collection, “Across the Creek,” a young girl and her mother fall victim to domestic violence in the early years of the area’s development.
Domestic violence is not the only larger issue at play in this collection. In “Watershed,” Neville’s uncle, Elmer Newby, makes a homophobic comment that Neville gently corrects; later in the same story, Margaret is shocked and dismayed at the Confederate flags she notices in the small town of Kuttawa, where she is buying a home. Finally, in the title story, “Drowned Town,” Neville references the forced removal of the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears. Through this comparison, Waldrop reminds us that Indigenous people who were forcibly removed from their land did not get to enjoy its beauty—most did not survive, much less thrive.
Many residents who were forcibly removed from drowned towns also did not thrive, as they didn’t have the resources to relocate. In “For What It’s Worth,” Elmer, who helps the government relocate people who don’t want to lose their homes, contends with the grief of poor residents who have nowhere else to go and can’t afford the recreational activities that the lakes provide. Elmer comes to sympathize with Nate McCracken, a Black man who is afraid and resistant to lose his property, when he helps the soon-to-be-displaced resident dig a ditch. Elmer is also affected by Evelyn, a distant relative with “. . . eyes that were the kind of green that only rivers possessed . . .” who says, “We’ve never lived anywhere else. This is our home.”
Many of the stories bring us the perspectives of characters who are deeply tied to this land, in language that is both concrete and evocative. In “Drift,” David has fond memories of his family’s cabin: “David sat on the screened porch for a long time, watching the moon’s reflection shine across the water and listening to the night sounds in the woods. Spring peepers and cicadas reminded him of nights spent there as a child, sleeping in seersucker pajamas and hearing his dad’s snore through the open windows.”
Home is ultimately what Drowned Town speaks to. The collection opens on Cam’s visit to the Land Between the Lakes for her wedding, and closes on a visit she makes to care for her ailing mother, during which she fully appreciates home for the first time: “Cam nodded and followed her mother’s gaze back toward the lake. Beneath its shimmering waters lay a forgotten world, yet in that moment and through her mother’s eyes, Cam sensed its loveliness, not only for what it once was but for what still existed. Despite profound loss—those unstoppable and devastating changes that had forever altered the landscape, sometimes beyond recognition—it remained a place of beauty, seen and unseen, transformed but still lovely.”
Elizabeth Hall Magill is pursuing an MFA in Fiction from Spalding University, where she has been awarded the Emerging Writer Scholarship, the J. Terry Price Scholarship, and the Mann-Driskell Scholarship. Her fiction has appeared in Limestone.