First published in 1982, ‘Shiloh’ is the centrepiece in Bobbie Ann Mason’s collection Shiloh and Other Stories, which received a number of notable accolades, including winning the Ernest Hemingway Foundation award for fiction.
When I recently re-read ‘Shiloh’ (on the lookout for the next fetish article!), I was struck by how compact the story is. It’s incredibly well self contained, with no loose threads. It’s a masterpiece in economy. Not in the same way that Hemingway is economic, with his stripped-back use of language; but rather, in a way where everything hangs together perfectly. The characters all exist with a purpose that drives the plot forward; the form and content complement one another beautifully; and the use of literary technique is unrivalled.
If you haven’t already, you can read a copy of ‘Shiloh’ by clicking here.
‘My stories typically start out very rough. But if I see there’s something in a story, I’ll work and rework it over and over, making small improvements with each draft until it finally reaches its finished shape. In writing most of the pieces in Shiloh, I just fooled around with what randomly came to mind. In that way I made discoveries that I could work with. I wrote about fifty stories, of which sixteen went into the collection.’
Bobbie Ann Mason in an interview with the Missouri Review
Before we dive into the main analysis, let’s cover some of the basics.
‘Shiloh’ is told in third-person limited narrative, which means it uses pronouns like ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’, but is largely told from the perspective of a single character – in this case, Leroy.
It is written in present tense, which often gives writing a sense of urgency. (Do you think this is the case with ‘Shiloh’?)
There are two main characters, Leroy and Norma Jean, plus Norma Jean’s mother, Mabel. The story’s conflict and tension come from the marital problems between Leroy and Norma Jean. While Leroy adapts to his new life following a driving accident that leaves him incapable of working, Norma Jean struggles to adjust to the new situation, and her ambitions of personal growth pull her further away from her husband. The moment that triggers this conflict is a perfect place to begin our analysis.
In ‘Shiloh’, there is a definite and clear moment that triggers the rest of the story. An event from which all subsequent events hang off. We learn about it on the first page, but it actually occurs four months prior to the beginning of the story.
Leroy’s leg injury.
Leroy is a truck driver. He injured his leg in a highway accident four months ago, and his physical therapy, which involves weights and a pulley, prompted Norma Jean to try building herself up.
Leroy’s weights and pulley are bought to help him with his physiotherapy, but they also prompt Norma Jean to work out herself. Her dedication to self-improvement is a running and symbolic theme throughout the story, and is central to ‘Shiloh’s’ opening page.
Beyond just the weightlifting, though, Leroy’s injury sets off a whole chain reaction of events that make up the story’s key moments. Let’s list them in causal order below:
The entire story of ‘Shiloh’ starts from this one moment, where Leroy is involved in a driving accident. Without it, we can imagine an entirely different sequence of events, where Leroy and Norma Jean continue their lives as before – unhappily married but with no strong reason to separate.
This type of trigger moment occurs in all good fiction. Every story needs a moment that kicks off the main conflict. A starting point from which everything else unfolds.
What’s interesting about ‘Shiloh’, though, is that its trigger event happens before the story even begins. In most fiction, this happens during the story – usually early on – so that the reader can watch it play out for themselves. Cast your mind back to our analysis of ‘Interpreter of maladies’ by Jhumpa Lahiri, for instance. The trigger event is the narrator’s infatuation with Mrs Das, which occurs about a third of the way through the story. That in itself is a moment of intrigue for readers. It’s a point of conflict and tension, over which the story pivots. Few editors would recommend cutting out such an important moment, so why does Mason choose to exclude it from ‘Shiloh’?
The main reason, I would argue, is economy. ‘Shiloh’ is a brilliantly succinct piece that hangs together perfectly. There are no loose ends to thread, no fat to trim. It’s remarkably neat. Adding an additional act featuring Leroy’s injury – the build up and immediate aftermath – would complicate that dynamic. Mason would be forced to add new backstories, reactions, expand upon the characters, etc. It would make for an interesting story, but a different one entirely.
‘Shiloh’ is about slow realisations and transformations – whether it be Leroy’s dopey dreaming of log cabins or Norma Jean’s growing list of hobbies – all of which are a result of the accident. By placing the trigger moment in the past, Mason is able to fully concentrate on its aftermath, and the events that follow. That’s the story she set out to tell, and it’s a very good one at that.
Leroy has grown to appreciate how things are put together. He has begun to realize that in all the years he was on the road he never took time to examine anything. He was always flying past scenery.
Just as ‘Shiloh’ starts from a very clear point, it is also a story working toward a very definite ending. And it’s one that Mason is hinting at from before even the first word of the story – the title. For non-American readers, perhaps the term Shiloh is less evocative than Mason intended. It refers to ‘The Battle of Shiloh’ – a defining moment in the American Civil War, known for being one of its bloodiest battles and a turning point for the Union. For Mason, who was born just seventy miles from the battleground, it would have been a clear indication of the direction the story was going in.
But even for readers unfamiliar with the Battle of Shiloh, the significance of the title is soon made clear. Before the halfway point, we’re told what it means, historically and in the context of the story, by Norma Jean’s mother, Mabel.
Mabel straightens her girdle and says, ‘I still think before you get tied down y’all ought to take a little run to Shiloh.’
‘One of these days, Mama,’ Norma Jean says impatiently.
Mabel is talking about Shiloh, Tennessee. For the past few years, she has been urging Leroy and Norma Jean to visit the Civil War battleground there. Mabel went there on her honeymoon—the only real trip she ever took. Her husband died of a perforated ulcer when Norma Jean was ten, but Mabel, who was accepted into the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1975, is still preoccupied with going back to Shiloh.
‘I’ve been to kingdom come and back in that truck out yonder,’ Leroy says to Mabel, ‘but we never yet set foot in that battleground. Ain’t that something? How did I miss it?’
‘It’s not even that far,’ Mabel says.
Suddenly, ‘Shiloh’ takes on a new importance, beyond being the story’s title. It’s of emotional significance to Mabel – somewhere she is keen for Leroy and Norma Jean to visit themselves.
And again, a few pages later, Mabel is talking up Shiloh.
‘Take her on down to Shiloh. Y’all need to get out together, stir a little. Her brain’s all balled up over them books.’
Leroy can see traces of Norma Jean’s features in her mother’s face. Mabel’s worn face has the texture of crinkled cotton, but suddenly she looks pretty. It occurs to Leroy that Mabel has been hinting all along that she wants them to take her with them to Shiloh.
‘Let’s all go to Shiloh,’ he says. ‘You and me and her. Come Sunday.’
Mabel throws up her hands in protest. ‘Oh, no, not me. Young folks want to be by theirselves.’
When Norma Jean comes in with groceries, Leroy says excitedly, ‘Your mama here’s been dying to go to Shiloh for thirty-five years. It’s about time we went, don’t you think?’
This passage further reinforces the fact that it’s an important place – not just for Mabel, but for the story itself. I don’t know about you, but when I first read the story, I remember feeling like I was being led purposefully by Mason to the location.
Norma Jean’s decision to leave Leroy doesn’t come out of the blue, either. We’re given plenty of hints beforehand. On just the second page, we’re told that the marriage is unstable. Through Leroy’s third-person limited POV, we learn that ‘He can’t tell what she feels about him’ and he thinks she’s disappointed in him being at home more often since the accident.
This theme of Norma Jean’s discontent (and Leroy’s slow-to-grasp understanding of it) builds up slowly but surely. We’re constantly reminded of Norma Jean’s self improvement and Leroy’s doubts about her happiness until the penny finally drops – subtly and just after the halfway point:
‘Norma Jean is miles away. He knows he is going to lose her. Like Mabel, he is just waiting for time to pass.’
From here on out, the ending is more-or-less concretised. Before we even reach the final scene, we have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen between Leroy and Norma Jean, and where it’s going to take place.
And so it comes to pass. Norma Jean tells Leroy that she wants to leave him, and he puts up a weak objection before reflecting on what she’s said, the battle, the history of Norma Jean, history in general. The fact that all this takes place at ‘Shiloh’ feels predetermined, like we knew where we would end up all along.
Of course, just because Mason leads us to believe that these events are going to take place, it doesn’t mean they necessarily have to. Many other writers would choose to completely subvert a reader’s expectation. They never end up in Shiloh and they live happily ever after, for instance. Would this have made the story better? That’s down to personal taste. For me, I enjoy how ordered the story is – how it’s building from one single point to another, clearly and without compromise.
When analysing fiction, it’s easy to forget some of the more obvious qualities in the writing in front of us. That certainly happens to me, which is why I wanted to shine a light on one of my favourite aspects of ‘Shiloh’ – the weird character traits.
It’s not exactly a literary term, but I can’t think of a better way of putting it. Because even though I wouldn’t class the characters themselves as particularly weird, Mason does choose to highlight some of their weirder qualities, like Leroy and his craft kits and Norma Jean and her piano.
Of course, it’s important to highlight characters’ habits and quirks in any piece of fiction. It’s what provides personality and depth. It makes the reader better engage with the characters. However, these characteristics are often more routine than those of Leroy and Norma Jean in ‘Shiloh’. Why is this the case? Commonplace characteristics are more relatable to readers, and imbuing characters with qualities that are too zany can come across as contrived.
So how does Mason get away with it, and what do the weird characteristics add to the story?
Those among you who read our article on Chekhov’s Gun will remember that everything that happens in fiction needs to happen for a reason. It needs to earn its place in the wider story. We can easily see how Leroy’s and Norma Jean’s quirky characteristics play into some of the story’s key themes.
Leroy and his craft kits, for instance, are tied to his disconnect from reality. He hasn’t been a stable fixture in the family home for years, and now that he’s more domesticated he doesn’t know how to behave – hence why he thinks it’s a feasible plan to build a new home from scratch using a craft kit.
Norma Jean sitting at her electric piano, playing ragtime tunes with horns and banjos, tapping her foot along – Mason is showing us how the character is ambitious and creative compared with Leroy, who’s lying on the couch smoking a joint.
As we can see, these weird character traits add to the overall direction of the story, but they also add some fun and intriguing flair. It’s a nice bonus on top of an already-solid piece of fiction, bringing some comic relief and additional texture that makes ‘Shiloh’ stand out even more.
As always, let’s imagine different literary choices the writer could have taken when constructing the story to help us better understand the techniques employed. This exercise also helps us to explore some of the wider ideas we explore in other fetish articles.
As we’ve already seen, the trigger event in ‘Shiloh’ is Leroy’s injury. It’s the moment that stimulates all the story’s major events. And unlike many other stories, this event happens before the narrative begins. But what if Mason decided to start the story with this event. What might the beginning of ‘Shiloh’ look like? How would Leroy, Norma Jean and Mabel immediately react? And would the inclusion of this event in the main narrative impact the way the rest of the story is told?
Throughout the telling of ‘Shiloh’, we’re given constant hints as to how and where the story will end. In this sense, the story is self-determined. But how would the story look if Mason decided to subvert the reader’s expectations? What if she decided to spring a twist at the end? What might that twist be, and how would it fit in with the rest of the story?
‘Shiloh’ is told in third-person limited narrative, meaning it uses pronouns like ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’ to describe all the characters, but the story is still largely told from Leroy’s perspective. But what if the story were told in first person narrative, using ‘I’ and ‘me’ pronouns?
Imagine the same story playing out (they still end up in Shiloh with Norma Jean announcing she wants to leave Leroy) but it’s told from a different perspective. Think about how this would play out for each of the two main characters: Leroy and Norma Jean (you could even try Mabel if you were feeling ambitious). What narrative impact would this have? What different perspectives would be shared?