Small town, big life {F*ckface by Leah Hampton}

F*ckface and Other Stories is a brassy, bighearted debut collection of twelve short stories about rurality, corpses, honeybee collapse, and illicit sex in post-coal Appalachia.
The twelve stories in this knockout collection—some comedic, some tragic, many both at once—examine the interdependence between rural denizens and their environment.

A young girl, desperate for a way out of her small town, finds support in an unlikely place. A ranger working along the Blue Ridge Parkway realizes that the dark side of the job, the all too frequent discovery of dead bodies, has taken its toll on her. Haunted by his past, and his future, a tech sergeant reluctantly spends a night with his estranged parents before being deployed to Afghanistan. Nearing fifty and facing new medical problems, a woman wonders if her short stint at the local chemical plant is to blame. A woman takes her husband’s research partner on a day trip to her favorite place on earth, Dollywood, and briefly imagines a different life.

In the vein of Bonnie Jo Campbell and Lee Smith, Leah Hampton writes poignantly and honestly about a legendary place that’s rapidly changing. She takes us deep inside the lives of the women and men of Appalachia while navigating the realities of modern life with wit, bite, and heart.

My two cents

I have a penchant for short story collections so I was happy to get my hands on this debut collection by Leah Hampton. With such great timing, it was like a lovely breath of fresh air during the first lockdown in 2020. It was a relief to have a physical copy of short stories that made me laugh-cry-cringe and everything in between.

There are 12 stories in all, and each offers insight into everyday people's lives in a rapidly changing Appalachia, a region known for its beautiful mountainous landscapes, rich natural resources, yet extreme poverty.

I enjoyed each of these stories -- they are simple, simply told, honest, and some, very raw. I feel that they will resonate with many as the human experience in these stories are wide and varied. While the setting or the circumstances may not be within your own set of experiences, I can guarantee that the emotions they can stir up within you are very much relatable. They'll evoke bittersweet emotions - a mix of sad, tragic, and yes .... even hopeful. 

The stories

F*ckface is about Pretty, a young, very shy girl who works at the local grocery store. She's never imagined working outside of her small town but her more worldly friend triggers her discontent. Pretty finds an unlikely ally in her the person she and her colleagues dubbed as f*ckface.   

Boomer is about Larry, a dedicated firefighter who slowly loses his wife while fighting the greatest fire their area has seen in decades. 

Wireless is about Margaret, whose haunted past propelled her to leave her hometown. Ironically, family brings her back to confront her past and eventually come to terms with it. 

Parkway is about Priscilla, a park ranger, whose otherwise humdrum outdoor job brings her face to face with the occasional and shocking dead body. 

Twitchell features Iva who suddenly starts bleeding during a pottery class. This gets her started on a series of doctor's appointments which gets her questioning whether a job long ago at the local chemical plant - and economic bane of the town - is the culprit. 

Mingo is about a woman who accompanies her husband to visit her husband's stubborn father in the hospital. She gets much more than she bargains for, but finds herself willing to go along. 
Frogs is about middle-aged siblings, Carolyn and Frank, who try to spice up their mundane lives by joining in a nature walk. Ironically, they find themselves feeling uncomfortable and out of place as the only locals on the walk.

Devil is about tech sergeant Boggs, who visits his deeply religious parents to make amends. Unflinching in their belief, they denounce him as the "devil" they've always known him to be, and he leaves for Afghanistan sadly and tragically no closer to his family.

Queen is about a woman who tries to save her mother's legacy of taking action with her bee colonies.

Meat is about Alison, a young intern at the local dairy, faces small town life (and death) at a funeral after a big fire.

Saint is an homage to a beloved brother, a streams-of-consciousness meandering of precious memories throughout their lives.

Sparkle is about a woman who takes her husband’s friend to Dollywood, and gains insight into what a different life she could have had. 

Verdict: These slice-of-life stories of everyday people in Appalachia will make you laugh and cry, together, and in a good way. Highly recommended! Hampton is definitely one to watch out for!

Disclaimer: I received a copy through the publisher Henry Holt and Co. 

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall