Famed Chapel Hill author Elizabeth Spencer has proved a North Carolina rule again.
“Ninety is the new 60.”
Spencer, like academic leader William Friday and historian John Hope Franklin a few years earlier, shows that the nineties can be incredibly productive years.
The evidence in Spencer’s case is her latest book of short fiction, Starting Over, which was released on January 1st.
Spencer is 92. Six of the book’s nine stories were written by her in the last three years, proving that her talents and work ethic are still strong.
Spencer is best known, perhaps, for her novella, The Light in the Piazza, written more than 50 years ago. That book still has legs. After being adapted into a popular movie in 1962, it was more recently the basis of a Broadway musical.
Not so widely known is that Spencer’s novel, The Voice at the Back Door, was recommended for a Pulitzer Prize by the Prize’s jury in 1957. However, the Pulitzer board decided not to make an award that year. No reasons were stated for that decision, but Spencer’s candid look at race relations in the South may have been too far advanced for the times.
The title of the new book, Starting Over, probably refers to the characters in several of the book’s stories in which changed circumstances require them to look at their lives in entirely different ways.
Many North Carolina readers may already be familiar with one of the stories titled “Christmas Longings,” first published in the 2012 Christmas edition of “Our State” magazine. Although the completion of a single short story often takes many months, sometimes even longer, Spencer confesses she wrote this one in a matter of days because she had forgotten about the magazine’s deadline. But the story suggests that it was not created in a vacuum, perhaps reflecting Spencer’s memories of her childhood Christmases.
The leading character, Sonia, now living in New England, looks back 40 years to growing up in North Carolina, a time when she wanted to be an angel in a fictional Smithville Presbyterian Church’s Christmas pageant and her sister wanted snow more than anything. But she was too big to be an angel and there was no snow. Using coat hangers to support the wings, her mother made an angel costume, and her father and uncle drove all the way to the mountains to get enough snow to make snow cream. Then, outside, real snow began to fall.
Back in the present, Sonia’s unbelieving husband says, “Now I’ve quit believing you. Your parents did everything to please you, but does God do it too?”
In a more provocative and complex story, “The Wedding Visitor,” a cousin, Rob Ellis, travels to a family wedding. The prospective bride had backed out on two recent weddings and the prospective groom is accused of stealing from a road construction account. Rob helps fix the problems and leaves wondering if and when he will ever come back.
My favorite is the book’s opening story, “Return Trip,” in which a North Carolina couple and their son are visited by the wife’s kinsman from Mississippi. Years earlier the wife and her kinsman had an ambiguous encounter about nine months before the couple’s son was born. Even though the son looks like the kinsman, none of the characters in the story deal directly with the obvious possibility, and the reader is forced to join the characters in wrestling with the situation and then moving on, or “starting over.”
Of course, that title Starting Over might have another meaning. It could also be an assertion by Spencer of her willingness to keep on “starting over” for the rest of her life.
If so, she is a good model for the rest of us, whether we are ninety, or sixty, or fifty, or twenty.