The BUZZ: When this book was published in 1986, it caused a small sensation. It won the PEN/Faulkner Award for debut fiction the following year, and its celebrated, emerging author was almost 70 years old.
The GIST: These short stories are distinct from each other, but all share the soul of the Deep South. Brown explores issues of race and class distinctions, women’s friendship and enmity, Southern charms and idiosyncrasies, loss, change, and the “tongues of flame” that illicit love sparks. The stories are alternately startling, playful, and poignant. Thirty years after their publication, they remain timeless in tone and subject. A clueless daughter-in-law takes her dying mother-in-law to buy a new dress. An elderly woman learns the truth about her long dead and long revered husband. A white woman seeks a black housekeeper in the wrong place, but will not be swayed from her intention. An all-night prayer vigil goes awry. There are eleven stories in all, and each is memorable for its self-contained story, its universal themes, and its superb writing.
The WRITING: Exquisite. Every tale is deftly crafted through spare yet powerful language, each sentence important to the story’s structure. I read them slowly, savoring the descriptions of people and places, of light and wildflowers and country roads, of homes and hearts. The dialogue is flawless. Subtly, Brown opens the world to us, and she respects us enough to let us glean the truth about it ourselves.
BUY or BORROW: Buy. This is an exceptional work of fiction, something you will treasure and read over and over again. Mary Ward Brown began writing in earnest in her late 60’s; after her lifetime apprenticeship as a wry and unflinching observer of human nature, she gave us this gift, Tongues of Flame.
It was music that, if you heard it as a child, you never got over, because it went with nurses who wouldn’t tell, with bare black feet, steaming corn bread and vegetables cooked with salt pork, with a way of life now gone forever. It went with people you had loved.