I was born 700 miles away from the Carolinas, on the other side of the Mississippi, away from mountain peaks, cabins in the woods and piers jutting into the ocean. But as I was reading Beth Gilstrap’s award-winning Deadheading, I could smell the chicken sizzling in full-fat butter and okra crisping in cornmeal on my grandmother’s gas stove. I could hear pine tree needles whispering in the wind. I could feel the sea drizzle kiss my cheek. That’s what Gilstrap’s stories did to me—they brought me home—a home that radiates with color and beauty but one also haunted by darkness and pain. And like where the land where they are born and bred, Southern women are also a dichotomy. Society expects them to be graceful, virtuous, and subservient, yet industrious, confident, and independent. In Gilstrap’s stories, the women are simply real and honest. Not once do you catch her characters preening in front of a mirror or gushing over a man. They are too busy and doggone tired. It’s clear why Gilstrap won Red Hen Press’ Women’s Prose Award.
Throughout Gilstrap’s collection of 22 stories, you may encounter the same names and continuation of storylines, but each piece stands on its own. The setting is ambiguous. Characters use cell phones and headphones, watch The Daily Show and drool over Pottery Barn catalogs, yet the stories feel as if they take place in another era, an era where children make mud pies before dinner, mamas fry eggs every morning and menfolk drive rusty pickups with one hand clutching the steering wheel and another clutching a can of Bud. The stories jump from worn-down industrial towns with struggling businesses and farms to country backroads and city streets. Some pieces are short while others span across several pages, but no matter the length, Gilstrap always manages to introduce you to complex characters and raw moments, such as intimate picnics on the lake, candid conversations with parents, and bickering between weary lovers. True to Southern writing, her prose is lyrical and illustrates a deep reverence for place. The language captures the strength as well as the warmth of Southern women, their unflagging determination to serve others above themselves. The weight these women bear flows through every story, and while most of the characters are not acquainted with one another it is their inherent struggle that binds the stories together. One character wrestles with the death of her sister while another fears her husband will slice her open like he does a snake. The people in their lives drag them through the dirt and rip up their desires like an unwelcome bill in the mail, yet these women continue to sweat over the stove for their families, open their arms to their neighbors and their doors to their communities.
Although fictional, Gilstrap’s cadre of women will likely remind you of yourself, a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a colleague, a friend. They are familiar folk, salt of the earth. “Fabric is like people,” Grandma Sue tells Janine. “Some of strong, some of us weak, but always true to its character.” Like Vicky and Lorna, some of us yearn to free ourselves from the rigid expectations of our families and constraints of our hometowns. On the other hand, some of us remain right where we entered this world, whether it’s out of love or obligation and fear, like Janine and Layla. At its core, Deadheading is a tale of survival. The characters endure abuse, neglect, rejection, loneliness, and loss. They are broke, battered, and beaten. However, while they temporarily sink into their sorrow and grief, they are not delicate flowers. After they dig themselves out of their despair, they emerge tougher, bolder, and wilder. They grow wings and horns and fly away.
In Deadheading, Gilstrap hasn’t necessarily created new world. Instead, she has invited us to visit one that has always existed and one that doesn’t just exist in the South. It’s a world that we try to leave, to forget, and watch shrink away in our rearview mirror. However, I remind you that while these characters may appear downtrodden, their pantries bare, and their hearts empty, do not pity them. Yes, their stories may give you the blues but they are also stories of triumph, of breaking free. So, walk with these women. Learn from them. Be with them. Because they are you.
Deadheading and Other Stories, by Beth Gilstrap. Pasadena, California: Red Hen Press, October 2021. 229 pages. $15.95, paper.
Drew Belle Elsey is a corporate communications consultant by day and a graduate student pursuing an MA in Creative Writing by night. Born and raised in the South, she now lives in Denver with her husband, two rambunctious corgis, and 75+ houseplants. She’s currently working on her debut novel and hopes to finish it before she turns 50 (she’s in her thirties). Find her on Instagram @southernhistorylore.