As editor Carolyn Haines notes in the forward to Delta Blues, “Writing short fiction is some of the hardest work around, and many of these contributors took time out from writing novels to do a story for Delta Blues. Their take on crime and the blues fills a wide road, but each twist and turn is executed with skill.” (Page 14) Variety in styles is very obvious here with nineteen contributors all generating stories involving the Mississippi Delta region and the blues. This is not one of those cookie cutter anthologies where all the stories read the same and only the names and places change. This is an anthology with real depth and meat to it.
With nineteen authors and 400 pages of text (including ten pages of author and editor biographies) it isn't possible to go into detail on each and every story. Therefore, what follows below are my personal favorites from this outstanding anthology. Your personal choices may, and in all likelihood will, vary tremendously.
James Lee Burke is one of my all-time favorite authors both as a writer and a reader. His ability to create powerful imagery is something I aspire to do as a writer. “Big Midnight Special” is his contribution here and touches on themes familiar to his readers. A long term convict, Arlen, is serving prison time and about to get crosswise with a powerful con by the name of Jody. Principal is a powerful motivator and it cuts both ways.
Not everything that walks in the night is of animal or human origin. In “Crossroads Bargain” by Charlaine Harris, blues guitarist Ernest Washington has trouble on many fronts. Saved from white men looking to have some fun and maybe even kill him, Ernest is at crossroads literally and metaphorically with everything in his life at stake.
Changing directions in life is also a key part of “Run Don't Run” written by Mary Saums. After barely surviving being shot in Chicago, Crosby takes stock of what is, and more importantly is not, in his life. Ultimately, he decides to go back home to Mississippi and go to work for the local Sheriff’s department. Crosby is not the only one that decides to go to Mississippi as somebody he occasionally arrested in Chicago has also come down. He's bringing a bag of trouble with him and things are not going to be easy.
Author of the very good “John Deal” series set in Miami and Key West, Les Standiford contributes the tale titled “Life and Casualty.” A late night drive, fog, and a hitchhiker are just some of the elements that mark the beginning of a very strange night for Del.
At 400 pages of intros, stories and extensively detailed author biographies, this is a read that features real depth and broadness to the work. Much like the Mississippi Delta itself, time has little meaning with this book as this rich anthology slowly moves forward. This is not a light hearted work. Instead the overall tone is somber, powerful and deep with the pain of financial insecurity, racism, and isolationism along with the steady sway of the blues told by characters that feel it for every second of life as the generations before them have. The stories will touch readers in many ways.
As noted on the back cover of the book, a dollar from each sale will be donated to the Rock River Foundation to aid in their efforts supporting the arts and literary in the Delta. For more information of the group and their work go to http://www.rrfoundation.org
ARC supplied by Tyrus Books in exchange for my objective review. Material quoted has been verified in the hardback publication.
From the introduction by Morgan Freeman: "This collection of short fiction captures both the art of the tale and the power of the blues, and is a nod at the human condition that often inspires musicians to write and sing the blues. These stories tell about bad men and bad women who sometimes do good--or sometimes follow their true nature. Some of these characters know all about the dangers of making a bargain with the devil. And some know the power of redemption. These are characters who would not be out of place in a Honeyboy Edwards tune, and would be right at home alongside the desolate wail of Clarksdale, Mississippi, native Son House."