Don Noble
11:55 am
Mon June 14, 2004

Strangers and Sojourners

Strangers and Sojourners is a collection of twenty-one stories that are interlinked by place--they all take place in fictional Coosawaw County, just north of Charleston--by recurring characters, and by an interest in the spiritual, in the most ecumenical sense.

Mary Potter Engel, the author of Strangers and Sojourners, has a Ph.D. in Christian Theology from the University of Chicago. She is the author of a novel, A Woman of Salt, and a study of John Calvin, and the editor of Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside. So I approached these stories with some trepidation, fearing that they might be didactic, or a kind of Low Country Left Behind.

They are not.

Strangers and Sojourners is a collection of twenty-one stories that are interlinked by place--they all take place in fictional Coosawaw County, just north of Charleston--by recurring characters, and by an interest in the spiritual, in the most ecumenical sense.

Pinesboro, S. C., is a hot, sweaty, steaming Winesburg, Ohio.

Engel has a huge variety of people tell their tales, usually in first person, and they are mostly not very happy tales. Pinesboro, like Winesburg, is a narrow, claustrophobic place where everyone knows everyone else's business. The young people flee if they can, to Charleston, or Atlanta, or New York even, and don't come home if they can avoid it.

A common tragedy in Pinesboro is that some of the emigres are drawn back, usually by a sick or dying parent, and they lack the force to escape the magnetic inertia fields of Coosawaw County a second time.

One such is a gay, black teacher of drumming who made it in the big city, winning the Mayor's Award and the Central Park Festival Award, but in Pinesboro, wearing his full-length white mink coat, he doesn't fit in. He is ostracized, made a victim of vicious untrue rumors, his teaching business ruined.

There is an amazing amount of unusual sexual behavior for such a small town with at least a couple of citizens who are transvestites and, having received hormone treatments, are awaiting or at least contemplating a sex change operation: M to F, as Engel has her characters put it.

Darlinda's husband, Jack, is secretly a homosexual, has affairs on the internet and in person, and ends up being nursed through his final days of dying of AIDS by his wife, to whom none of this makes any sense.

Although all her friends tell her she is a fool, it is clear that Darlinda is sanctified by the experience. "The seven weeks before Jack died were the best of Darlinda's life. There was a wide stillness around them that made room for everything, disappointment and hope, sorrow and joy, anger and acceptance, and that stillness filled her."

There are many kinds of religious belief in Pinesboro.

The first story in the book is narrated by Queen Esther Coosawaw, a 114-year-old black woman who is remembering the days of segregation and her own wedding day, and the last story-the title story, "Strangers and Sojourners," is told by a middle-aged Jewish woman who has lost nearly all her family and has adopted the strange, obsessive ritual of riding her bicycle twenty-eight miles every night between midnight and dawn.

As she rides, she hears the earth speak up to her the names of the dead, her own dead and the other dead of Coosawaw County, and she is performing a kind of Kaddish for all of them.

Just like Darlinda, she is saved by this odd compulsion and the voice she hears. "It's not like any voice you've ever heard, when the earth starts breathing out the names of the missing. It's a softness rising up from the ground, making space in the earth so worlds can live where no flea could fit before..."

This volume is intelligent and thoughtful, not didactic or aggressively preachy. Engel deals in these stories with medicine, race, the gay and the straight, social class, HIV/AIDS, the country club, the cotillion, the shack, and the restored antebellum mansion.

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