The Birds of Opulence

Imagine a tree, a bird in the tree, the hills, the creek, a possum, the dog chasing the possum. Imagine yourself a woman who gathers stories in her apron.


Crystal Wilkinson’s novel The Birds of Opulence visits familiar themes I’ve encountered in her short stories. There are familiar names and places, also. She weaves them all into a story of four generations of women who live in Opulence, Kentucky along with a friendship between the youngest of those four generations and a girl who has difficulty feeling she belongs in Opulence even though she grows up there.

Wilkinson scatters the novel with the joy of the mountain landscape, the pleasantry of singing birds and the celebratory nature of the community’s church picnic known as Dinner on the Grounds. These happy details are not a facade. They are real and alive.

At the same time, the joy melds with the haunting presence of mental illness and the dark spectre of racial, social and cultural prejudice. These aspects of the story are very real, also.

Wilkinson’s brilliance is her ability to bring both together without one dismissing the other. The tragic ending doesn’t displace the laughter, but the laughter doesn’t cover up the tragedy.

I’ll sum everything up by saying “Go and read this novel!”

Mark Twain’s “A Curious Experience”

And the War Department! But, oh, my soul, let’s draw the curtain over that part!


Mark Twain’s “A Curious Experience” is one of the longer of his short stories (at least the ones I’ve read so far) at 25 pages. I’m not sure whether it’s suppose to be funny or not. He could definitely be satirizing the military but this story has a different tone to it than most of Twain’s satirical writing. The plot focuses more on what is unknown to the reader and the narrator making it into a mystery with a little satire.

A young boy claims to be a Union sympathizer when he asks to be signed up for the war in the 1860’s. As the story unfolds, the Sergeant becomes more and more convinced that the boy, based on his actions, is a spy.

The satire, if that’s what it is, comes as the boy is able to wreak havoc on the entire company simply by pretending to be someone out of his “dime-store” novels – perhaps the comic books of the 1860’s.

In spite of the story’s length, Twain is able to make the plot brilliantly concise. It never roams or rambles but always heads straight to what I would consider the punchline. However, then the punchline has to be explained which maybe is the reason the story doesn’t ring as funny.


Mark Twain’s “The Invalid’s Story”

Pretty soon it was plain that something had got to be done. I suggested cigars.


Comedy rule of thumb: Always let the reader know about the Limburger cheese.

In Mark Twain’s “The Invalid’s Story”, the narrator is accompanying his dead friend from Cleveland to Wisconsin via train. Apparently, in the 1880’s, one actually rode in the same car as the coffin.

Since the narrator is retelling the story and now knows about the Limburger cheese that a stranger left by the coffin, he kindly lets the reader know about it which allows the antics that ensue to be darkly comical as he mistakes the smell of the Limburger cheese for the smell of his dead friend.

This story would not have worked if the Limburger cheese had not been disclosed to the reader up front.

Because the smell of a dead body – well – its just not that funny.


The Warden and the Wolf King


Be still.

The voice repeated the words again and again, like a beating heart, until Janner was at last able to obey and to rest, rest, rest. There in the light of the Fane of Fire, Janner Wingfeather encountered – absorbed – an abiding peace that he would never forget all the days of his life.

He was still. And he was loved.

The title in Andrew Peterson’s The Warden and the Wolf King, his conclusion to The Wingfeather Saga, refers to Janner and Kalmar Wingfeather who take center stage along with their sister Leeli in this masterfully told story. The brothers continue to come to terms with who they are as the royal family of the lost Shining Isle of Anniera. This growth and growing up comes with more bumps along the way but the brothers continue to become aware of the other’s strengths and the need of each for the other.

Throughout the series, the children’s grandfather Podo reminds them of a game they play called Ships and Sharks. I have imagined this being a pirate version of Dungeons and Dragons. Podo tells them never to give up – there’s always a way out. A determination set with a resilient hope becomes the theme of the whole story and a driving characteristic of the children’s fight against the evil in their land.

My posts about these books have focused on Janner and Kalmar but I don’t want to leave out the character of Leeli, whose gift for music gives her a unique role in the war against Gnag the Nameless. She shows as much strength and bravery as her brothers.

As I thought in my previous post, names take on important meanings in the story and the fact that Gnag is Nameless is significant.

And then there is the ending. An ending I want to talk about but just can’t so as to let others enjoy and discover this tale on their own. But its an ending about which anyone who reads these books will have an opinion.

Maybe I’m letting the little kid in me come out when I simply say “I loved these books!” But I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Crystal Wilkinson: Holler (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 25)

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Go to the end of the road and on up the hill a little and this is Mission Creek – this is where we live. You might not expect to find black people in the mountains, not many of us left, but we’re here.


The Deal Me In fates decided to have me read Crystal Wilkinson’s short story “Holler” at the same time that I’m reading her latest novel The Birds of Opulence. The anthology Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia edited by Charles Dodd White and Page Seay, in which “Holler” is included, has given me several great stories and some wonderful authors. Wilkinson and Ron Rash rank up there as my favorite discoveries.

The story “Holler” takes place in a holler in the mountains of Kentucky; however, the story also uses the word “holler” to describe yelling. Interesting that both uses of the word have a connection to the plot.

The descriptions of where the narrator lives have the biggest impact on the plot. The yelling aspect of the story connects the frustrations and tragedies that her family suffers from the prejudice they encounter. Racial prejudice is definitely involved but they are also looked down upon for living in the mountains, for being country.

In the case of the narrator and her family, the one-word sentences and exchanges that I posted about previously (here) actually come with a deep and trustworthy intuition (unlike the situation in my previous story) in which the characters understand much more than simply the words that are spoken – and so does the reader.

I selected this story when I drew the Queen of Spades for Week 25 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.


Valerie Nieman: Worth (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 24)

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“Mind if I set up here?”

“Free country,” Doyle answered, then opened his hand out toward the water.


When I selected my stories for Deal Me In 2017, I noticed that many of the Appalachian stories had one-word titles while several of my New York City stories had very wordy titles by most standards.

As I’ve read the stories by Appalaciah authors I’ve also discovered that many of the characters are not all that chatty. In the case of Valerie Nieman’s short story “Worth”, Doyle encounters a stranger while he is fishing. The conversation between Doyle and the younger stranger doesn’t contain that many words; however, Doyle seems to have him pegged from the beginning – a kid who doesn’t have a job and doesn’t know the worth of a fish.

As I’m reading, I’m thinking “Isn’t it interesting how Doyle can be so intuitive with so few words exchanged”. And then in a twist that for the most part works, the reader realizes Doyle is completely wrong.

“Worth” is included in my copy of Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia edited by Charles Dodd White and Page Seay. I read it when I selected the Three of Spades for Week 24 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

The Monster in the Hollows


His heart was black with despair, so the Maker’s magic was most welcome. It helped him believe there was power pulsing behind the veil of the visible world, pulsing like blood through the world’s veins, sending life and light coursing through everything, surprising and confounding at every turn. When he remembered this, the darkness glimmered with goodness.

We’re up to The Monster in the Hollows, Book 3 in Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga and as I said to my youngest daughter after I finished this one, they just keep getting better! I will call out “Spoilers” here even though I’m not revealing anything that isn’t in the description on

The Igiby family is now known by their true identity, the Wingfeathers, the royal family of the once glorious but now destroyed Shining Isle of Anniera. In order to escape the Fangs (half animal and half human creatures created by the evil Gnag the Nameless), they travel from the Ice Prairies to the Green Hollows, Nia Wingfeather’s childhood home and the closest thing to safety they know.

Not an uncommon theme in fantasy stories, the fear of evil can cause an evil of its own. Expecting to be welcomed to their new home, Kalmar (known as Tink in his younger days) and a choice he made in the previous book North! Or Be Eaten leads to fear and suspicion from the otherwise peaceful folks of the Green Hollows. In spite of a few friends, the Wingfeather children find themselves alienated from virtually everyone around them – strangers in a strange land.

The working through this alienation is one of the highlights of the series so far. In addition, the jealousies and insecurities that exist between Kalmar and his brother, Janner, slowly change to mutual admiration, respect and, yes, perhaps even love.

Also in the story, a mystery begins to be revealed little by little. I found myself early on asking questions like “I wonder?” or “Could it be?” It’s easy sometimes to criticize a plot line by saying “I saw that coming a mile away” but in the case of The Monster in the Hollows that “mile” is one of the best feats of story-telling I’ve read in a while. And the emotional punch at the end of that mile can’t be dismissed, either.