“The Lightness of Water & Other Stories,” by Rhonda Browning White

Rhonda Browning White

Reviewed by by Phyllis Wilson Moore

The settings in Rhonda Browning White’s The Lightness of Water & Other Stories take readers from Florida to West Virginia while introducing them to a broad cast of characters. The characters in these nine intriguing stories have dreams of what might have been or what might still be accomplished.

White, a native of West Virginia, currently lives in Florida. She holds a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Creative Writing from Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. This debut collection was awarded the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction (2019).

Opening the collection, “Bondservant” is a poignant West Virginia story dealing with the tough decisions coal miners’ families often must make. Should the breadwinner keep their coal job in West Virginia and preserve the family’s land holdings? Should the family pull up stakes and move to a state with more, perhaps safer, industrial jobs? How will they finance the move? What role does God play in this decision? A timely story, it is as relevant in states such as Texas where the oil industry is the high-stakes holder in both “good” jobs and pollution, or Pennsylvania with its fracking boom, roaring trucks loaded with chemicals, and polluted water.

The second story, “Things Long Dead,” opens in New Smyrna Beach in a bikers’ bar. The bar is the setting for an encounter between two Vietnam veterans with a shared past, health issues, and a major disagreement on what happened in Nam. Totally believable, this gritty story sent me to the internet to research biker gangs’ rules, K-Bar knives, and such.

Most of the subsequent stories are set in the mountains of West Virginia, some in the granny-woman era and some in the present. The women in the past are well drawn and so are the issues they face: isolation, little opportunity for an education, absence of healthcare, superstitions, unwanted pregnancies. These women occupy traditional caregiver roles and the role of the rural, religious, obedient wife.

In the present era’s stories, the women are no longer isolated; they are decision makers. Education is more available. They have choices and may select to forego a family or to stay single.

To even the more somber stories, there is a tad of ironic humor. In “Heritage,” a youngish mother’s dream comes true. Well, almost. She recently achieved her goal of being admitted to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Now she finds herself in the subservient position of toting, carrying, and catering to the chapter’s upper-crust president. Even worse, she learns that her dream of glory in the DAR is seen as irrelevant, perhaps slightly silly, by her teenage daughter.

The Lightness of Water is a mixture of interesting, well-written stories with a wide variety of characters facing life head on.

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