The stories in Meredith Sue Willis’ new collection, Re-visons: Stories from Stories, will take you back to your Scripture, your Shakespeare and your Harriet Beecher Stowe.
And when you do glance back at the stories that Willis here “re-visions” you might be surprised at the way in which women figure in these well-known works from an earlier time: barely. They are most notable by their absence, granted only a shred or two of stereotypical characterization.
Take for example, Martha, who appears in the New Testament, John 11-12. She is present at a quite significant moment in Jesus’s career, when Jesus raises her brother Lazarus from the dead. What on earth was Martha, as one of the first people to witness Jesus’s divine powers, thinking about all this? Well, you won’t find out from John.
In the few lines he gives her, Martha is purely practical and limits herself to women’s business of cleanliness and cooking: she advises Jesus that her brother has been dead for four days and therefore already smells. After her brother has been restored to life, we read, “Martha served” supper to a large group of followers. Meanwhile, her more extravagant sister Mary dares to lavish a whole pound of costly ointment on Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. Mary allows herself to revel in the wonder of the moment; Martha is just a drudge.
But Willis does not want to accept that Martha, the woman who does what has to be done while others dance and dream, has no rich interior life. In this re-telling, Martha still works hard, but she is no dullard and is as aware of the magical moment as the others: “And I pass out the bread, and I bake it and knead it and grind the wheat while Mary and Lazarus and all the others wait for the Nazarene, singing about how he gave everything for us, even the breath from his body. Well, it is my pride to give everything I have too, my baking, my weaving, my sweat.”
And how, Willis wonders, did Jesus feel about the woman who does not wash his feet with her “naked hair,” but who slaves over a hot stove? At one point, with everybody, including her sister Mary, gaga for Jesus and leaving all the work to her, Willis’s Martha gets fed up and tells the Lord off: “I don’t think you’re the Messiah, I think you’re preaching for free meals.”
Everyone is shocked except Jesus himself who understands her perfectly, and who comes into the kitchen and “serves” the exhausted, exasperated Martha with his own hands.
In the end, Martha—who will be ravished by Jesus along with the rest—is rewarded for her skepticism, and her practicality, even about the prospect of heaven. It is she who becomes Jesus’s confidant, who helps ground the man who is still a man and growing weary of adulation: “They want the miracles,” she tells him. “Not your light.” Down-to-earth Martha can not help adding: “if you really have any.”
Then there’s Topsy from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the African-American child who is known mostly for having no up-bringing¸ having “just growed.” Her other main characteristic is being too black for the Northern lady, Ophelia, to touch, despite abolitionist beliefs.
But for Willis, Topsy needs an interior life too; there is probably a great deal more that could be told about the relationship between the ragged girl and the principled but chilly woman. In “Miss Topsy,” then, Willis catches up with the two women many years later, as Ophelia is on her death bed in New England. Topsy, no longer young, has been Ophelia’s companion all these years and the two have lived together in Ophelia’s pretty home.
As Ophelia is dying Topsy reminisces about their life together; it has not always been smooth. Sometimes they have quarreled, Topsy wondering aloud if, instead of becoming a proper New England Christian lady, she should have stayed in New Orleans and “become a market woman with my own little children playing in my skirts.” Like any other veteran of a long relationship, Topsy knows precisely how to hurt Ophelia, who has felt guilt that, because of her, Topsy never had children of her own.
“You are free,” a grim Ophelia hits back.
Topsy stops “teasing. She tells her mentor, “I am free, but I freely owe it to you.”
It is a complicated relationship, “such different gaits,” Topsy muses, “to be yoked together.”
Still they have been yoked; perhaps, as Willis suggests, they have even lived as lovers all these years, sharing a bed and a warmth that transcends their differences. When Ophelia finally passes, Topsy will neither return to New Orleans as she has threatened, nor or go out as a missionary, as some in New England seem to think she should. Rather she will stay on in the home she has shared with Ophelia, tending the garden and going to church.
But perhaps she will make a few changes; perhaps she will “wear more yellow” than Ophelia thought proper.
In addition to Martha and Topsy, Willis takes a look inside women even less known, ones we’ve only glimpsed through a limited male gaze. One such is Claribel Queen of Tunis who has a non-role Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Why is she even mentioned? Her state wedding is the reason for the sea voyage that results in Prospero’s enemies being shipwrecked on his island.
In Willis’s hands, though, Claribel is no longer a silent little chess piece, but a real girl who loves passionately if misguidedly, who is surrounded by corruption and intrigue she cannot defeat, and who finally learns to play the game like the men do, depending primarily on “spies and eunuchs” to preside over her own affairs.
As I read Willis’s stories, I am taken aback to realize that I have read many of the texts she uses, rolling happily along on a tide of male-centricity, never giving a thought to their silenced female populations.
After reading Re-visions, I don’t think I’ll be doing that again.
Though Willis’s “revisionist” work has a political point of view, you will find no anger or dogmatism here. Rather you will find real women in the midst of busy and eventful lives, full of the energy, complexity and desire that we can all recognize. Their creation is long overdue.
Says Diane Simmons of Meredith Sue Willis:
Willis is the author of many works of fiction, including the short story collections In the Mountains, and Out of the Mountains which I love for their warmth and wit, and their wonderful ear. Read more about Re-visions by Meredith Sue Willis. Meredith also has an active blog.
Visit Diane Simmons’ website to learn more about her, DianeSimmons.net. Maybe one day she’ll join us on Twitter.
Category: Book Reviews - Short Stories
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