American Culture

Book Review: The Day the Mirror Cried by Saundra Kelley

An interesting olio of tales, vignettes, and short stories with poetry used as a gloss…Kelley’s collection offers nods to Faulkner, Capote, O’Connor, and other Southern legends….

The Day the Mirror Cried by Saundra Kelley (image courtesy Goodreads)

Saundra Kelley’s new book The Day the Mirror Cried reflects a couple of facets of her professional life. Kelley is a professional storyteller, a member of the Storytellers’ Guild, based in one of the capitals of that oral art form, Jonesborough, Tennessee. But Kelley also has a student of literature, and this work, a rambling collection of what she calls “reflections,” “odd memories,” and “ruminations,” shows that while she has a deep understanding of the folkloric character of storytelling, she also has a deep appreciation of great writing. The Day the Mirror Cried is laced with allusions to the work of great Southern writers even as it offers its own fascinating insights into the culture of native Floridians.

Unlike the typical story collection which often progresses towards a key centerpiece work that gives the collection its name, Kelley begins with  the piece that gives her work its title. “The Day the Mirror Cried” will remind readers of one of Faulkner’s most widely known stories, “A Rose for Emily,” and Kelley does a fine job of nodding to the great Mississippian while keeping true to her own tale. This story, which opens the first section of The Day the Mirror Cried, sets up some of the other nods to Southern Gothic tale telling that appear with it such as “The Ship’s Lantern” and “Laugh at the Moon No More.” One other story, “Emerald Forest,” is affecting in the same way as a Truman Capote tale: what begins as curiosity ends up in a sinister situation, changed in Kelley’s story by the intercession of a protective relative (and here the story echoes the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood with the main character’s brother acting the role of the woodsman).

Readers will find the works in the middle section of Kelley’s book, “Southern Towns and Odd Memories,” most like conventional short stories. Three selections stand out. “Smooth Operator,” a clever twist on Flannery O’Connor, is the story of an amoral conman posing as a preacher who meets his match in a couple of ladies of the church. “Suspicious Remains” picks up the story of the two church ladies again, though it adds a macabre twist that makes one hope that Kelley might expand the tale into a longer read. Finally, “Gator Giggin’ in Blackwater Swamp” offers the sort of rural Southern tale that may remind astute readers of that chronicler of the Southern poor Erskine Caldwell. As improbable (and unnerving) as the practice that gives the story its title seems, the story bears that unmistakable sense of versimilitude that comes from intimate knowledge of a culture.

The last section of the book is called “Ruminations.” It contains the most personal – and poignant – pieces in this collection. Especially affecting are “Third Grade Drama Queen,” about the author’s struggles with dyslexia, “The Glass Case,” a coming to terms with segregationist attitudes in her own family, “Due Diligence,” a remembrance  of her father’s devotion to his craft, and “An Affair of the heart,” an appreciation of her parents’ happy and loving marriage. These brief vignettes from the author’s and her family’s lives have that quality that all good memoir writing has – the feeling that the author has held nothing back, that the stories that she is sharing are pure, unvarnished truth.

The Day the Mirror Cried meanders through a wide array of topics and often seems like the great Apalachicola River that Kelley celebrates in several of her tales: its meandering is, in the end, both essential to its meaning and its charm. Kelley’s diverse and seemingly unrelated group of tales is actually one story: the story of how a writer becomes a storyteller – and how a storyteller becomes a writer.

Kelley’s charming collection can be found here.





2 replies »

  1. Storyteller. I never really considered that such a vocation exists in this modern world, at least not in its pure sit-there-while-I-spin-you-a-yarn form. I also never thought about the difference between storyteller and writer. I feel like I just found money in the crack between the sofa cushions, learning something well away from the main point of your piece. Thanks.

    • Storytelling as I practice it, is performance art in the ancient oral tradition. It really is a vocation – a call one might say, and once called, one must tell. Writing is a similar process but far more inwardly directed in my experience. To tell a story from the written page, requires finding the bones, lifting them out and letting everything else go as it becomes spoken word.