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Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2019

Book Review: Rock Big and Sing Loud

Collection of Short Stories Strikes Emotional Notes

By Gloria Oster | August 01, 2007

Like a fine wine that offers a range of flavorful notes for one's palate, Tamara Baxter's collection of short stories, Rock Big and Sing Loud, strikes a range of emotional notes-all culminating in an extremely satisfying reading experience. Baxter's finely crafted plots and lovingly drawn characters reflect a keen ear for the idiosyncratic speech patterns and expressions of our region and a sharp eye for both the comic and tragic in human behavior. As with all good fiction, the setting of Southern Appalachia does not limit Baxter's themes to this region, but, rather, the characters and their conflicts become a part of the human drama found anywhere when life is examined closely.

The collection consists of 16 stories, all with titles that delight and pique interest. Who could not be curious about the subject matter of stories entitled "Doomsday Monday at PeeWee's Hamburger Emporium," "Me and My Mean Sister Mary Lee," "Jack Mooneyham is Going to Hell" or "Killing Oranges"? These clever titles exemplify Baxter's use of humor that frequently contains a darker dimension. The humor often belies the desperation and down-and-out nature of her characters' lives.

Such blending of the comic and tragic is difficult to master, but Baxter's stories illustrate a complexity that could be likened to the same characteristic of Flannery O'Connor's works. Like O'Connor, Baxter often uses the narrative viewpoint of an innocent child or a naive adult to make more vivid life's trials and villains. For example, in "Black Dark" the narrator begins: "Mama makes me go through Mr. Fred's holler, and it black dark and me not able to see my hand in front of my eyes and night sounds coming at me every which way." To reveal why this child must endure the "black dark" might reveal too much of the story, but rest assured that there is a good reason. This child's and his Mama's ties to each other are great, while both must endure a ne'er-do-well father and husband.

Another story focusing on the antics of an innocent is "A Wind Among the Stars." The first line of this story declares: "When Mary Margaret Jenkins was 12 years old and had the common sense of a chicken, she got it into her birdy brain to drive her brother Elroy's car, a 1952 Ford, a big high-off-the-ground boxy automobile with lots of glass and chrome." Mary Margaret's inexplicable behavior as seen through the eyes of the narrator ultimately reveals Mary Margaret to be an imaginative visionary. The discrepancy between the narrator's observations and the reader's perceptions reflect another technical achievement of Baxter's stories.

A story with another "knock-your-socks-off" beginning illustrates the two-edged sword of Baxter's humor. In "Flashpoint," the narrator begins: "I had not been dead five minutes before Riley cupped his hand over Charity Sanborn's left breast, causing her to let out a silly giggle." Yet the story is set against the backdrop of a wife on life support and a husband who has fallen prey to the sexual wiles of the home health nurse. To add to the entertainment value, the dead narrator has seen and understood it all. Comic? Well, yes and no.

Not all stories in this collection use humor as the driving force behind the plot, but most do. One notable exception is "A Christmas Mourning." This story reminds readers of how life can be unbearably cruel. How does a young husband and new father deal with grief, bewilderment and hostility brought on by the death of his wife and the birth of his daughter, especially when nature and in-laws show no sympathy for him? The poignancy of his situation is striking.

To repeat, these stories will entertain as well as elucidate the reader concerning the ever-surprising variety of human behavior found here and elsewhere. Baxter's collection won the New Writer's Series Prize in 2006 presented by the Jesse Stuart Foundation. The honor is well-deserved. These stories and their readers await further work by this talented author.

Gloria Oster teaches English at King College in Bristol, Tenn. and is a member of the Editorial Committee for A! Magazine for the Arts.

Editor's Note: Tamara Baxter will be one of three authors participating in Creative Writing Day at the Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon, Va. Her workshop is entitled "Characters Made Real" ( Baxter teaches English at Northeast State Technical Community College in Blountville, Tenn.

Rock Big & Sing Loud
Softback, 160 pages
ISBN: 1-931672-41-5
Publisher: Jesse Stuart Foundation ( and click on "New Books")
Pub. Date: 10/01/2006

Topics: Literature