In a rural pocket of western Kentucky, a shy woman with a little-girl smile wanders knee-deep in the soybean fields. Bobbie Ann Mason, who drifted north to the world of big-time universities, fancy publishers and literary acclaim, has come joyously home to Mayfield for a visit. Home is a world where her mother, Christie, fixes barbecued swamp rabbit for guests, and her father, Wilburn, unable to make it as an independent dairy farmer, leases out his 54 acres. Home is also a world invaded by four-lane highways, K marts, “Shrimp Night” at the Holiday Inn and the shopping mall in nearby Paducah. The characters who populate Mason’s world—small-town folk who itch to get out but rarely do so—are well known to readers of her short stories, published in The New Yorker, and of her book Shiloh and Other Stories, which won the Ernest Hemingway prize in 1982. Now Mason, 45, has turned this pastoral corner of Kentucky into the center of her earthy, witty first novel. In Country (Harper & Row, $15.95) has dazzled reviewers, evoking comparisons with Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty. It has been optioned by Warner Bros., sold to five foreign publishers and picked up by the Book-of-the-Month Club.
The title is a term that Gl’s used for their time in the Vietnam war zone. Mason’s story is about Samantha Hughes, a sassy 17-year-old Kentucky girl whose daddy was killed in Vietnam before she was born. “Sam” is confused by the patriotic past and by the sorry state of her Uncle Emmett, a Vietnam vet plagued by bad memories. While trying to figure out this muddle, she’s also immersed in reruns of M*A*S*H and the life on the strip of highway between McDonald’s and Burger Boy.
When Mason began this novel, she had no intention of bringing in the specter of Vietnam. But the subject, she says, consumed her after a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. “I looked at everyone at the Memorial reading for names, parents crying and people bringing flowers and letters. When I saw all those people there, I knew that was my subject, that it was every American’s story in some way or another.”
The gentle, introspective woman, who struggles to find the common threads that unite her readers, grew up as a loner. “I was very bookish and shy,” she says. “I didn’t have playmates, ever.” Instead, she’d pick blackberries and sell them for 25 cents a quart to the local ladies for jam or hide out with a Nancy Drew book. “Nancy had a car and went out and did things,” explains Mason. “She filled my head with dreams of escape and adventure and being somebody.” So did Fred Astaire movies’ at the drive-in and songs by Patti Page and the Hilltoppers on the radio.
It wasn’t until she went to the University of Kentucky in 1958 that Mason became interested in literature. She fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. “It was a romantic dream to be a writer. It seemed like a calling,” she says. “It was a way of getting out and escaping the limited possibilities of here.”
So Mason somehow mastered her shyness and headed for New York, where she found a job writing for fan magazines like TV Star Parade. Later she enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Connecticut, where she met Roger Rawlings, a fellow graduate student in English. Buoyed by a growing confidence—and Roger’s support—the insecure Mason began writing short stories, the central theme of which was generally the conflict between insularity and mobility. “Some people will stay at home and be content there. Others are born to run. It’s that conflict that fascinates me.”
It also fascinated New Yorker editor Roger Angell, to whom Bobbie Ann mailed her stories. Angell sent her 19 encouraging turndowns before he finally accepted a Mason story in 1980. At last, at 40, she was a published writer. Married since 1969 to Rawlings, Mason settled into a quiet literary life in Emmaus, Pa., headquarters of Rodale Press where her husband is an editor. Childless, they read by the fire with their seven cats and a dog and listen to rhythm-and-blues records or maybe Bruce Springsteen. Like her In Country heroine, Mason is a Springsteen nut. “He writes of a very deep pain, a very bleak world in which people work very hard and only want a little something they can call their own,” she reflects. “And if they can’t get it, at least they can dance.”
Mason’s own simple values have stayed the same despite her sudden splashy success. “If I opened the New York Times and saw a page devoted to me, I might start to feel I was hot shit,” says her husband. “But Bobbie is still just herself.” Adds her mom, “If she had changed, I’d ‘a’ killed her.” Sure enough, chewing her homemade slaw and beans baked with brown sugar and bacon at her mother’s table on a visit home to Kentucky, Mason puts on no airs. Dressed in her usual jeans and Springsteen T-shirt, tuning out the din of the football game in the background, she says she’ll write some short stories next and perhaps she’ll move. “I feel like I’m sort of an exile. I always know that home is here, on this farm, and that frees me to go other places. I know the roots are here, but life moves around in rootless ways. Maybe I’ll come back…,” she says, looking around fondly at her old Kentucky home.