Falling Through Space: The Journals of Ellen Gilchrist

Falling Through Space: The Journals of Ellen Gilchrist

by Ellen Gilchrist

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Ellen Gilchrist has amassed a nationwide following, and her readers eagerly anticipate each new short story collection and novel. The sassy and moving commentaries she recorded for National Public Radio were a large part of the original kindling for this intense interest.

In Falling Through Space: The Journals of Ellen Gilchrist the spark that first


Ellen Gilchrist has amassed a nationwide following, and her readers eagerly anticipate each new short story collection and novel. The sassy and moving commentaries she recorded for National Public Radio were a large part of the original kindling for this intense interest.

In Falling Through Space: The Journals of Ellen Gilchrist the spark that first attracted this audience flashes again in fifty-eight short essays drawn from those enormously successful broadcasts. To update and continue the dialogue she has always maintained with her fans, Gilchrist has added fifteen new essays.

Originally published in 1987 by Little, Brown and Company, Falling Through Space provides a funny and intimate diary of a writer's self-discovery. Author of more than a dozen books and winner of the National Book Award, Gilchrist is a beloved and distinctive southern voice whose life and memories are every bit as entertaining as the wild and poignant short stories for which she is famous.

The short essays that anchor this book vividly explore the Mississippi plantation life of her childhood; the books, teachers, and artists who influenced her development; and her thoughts about writing and life in general. Coupled with forty-two pictures from Gilchrist's youth and adulthood, these slices of life create a running autobiography.

In new essays, originally published in such magazines as Vogue, Outside, New Woman, and the Washington Post Sunday Magazine, Gilchrist reveals her origins, influences, and the way she works when she writes. Required reading for any fan, this book is Ellen Gilchrist at her funniest and best. For her readers it confirms her spontaneity and her talent for finding life at its zaniest and brightest.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Falling Through Space is for all Gilchrist fans who have listened to her entertaining and enlightening broadcasts on National Public Radio and wanted more. Compiled chronologicallyand taken largely from the broadcaststhese journal entries reveal Gilchrist's development as a writer and also as a person, beginning with her early life in Mississippi. Whether river hunting in the Ozarks or enjoying a ``debauch Saturday night'' reading Darwin and Einstein, she seems never to have know boredom, and her adventurous spirit is contagious. Hejinian approaches her life from a totally different perspective, inviting those ``who love to be astonished'' to experience reality in her unique way. A language poet, she captures experience in discrete, brilliant bits of imagery and sound. The result is an intriguing journey that both illuminates and perplexes, teases and challenges, as it reveals an innovative artist at work. So, though both books permit us to look at the lives of women who write, Gilchrist will appeal more to general readers and Hejinian to those interested in the avant-garde and the unusual. Nancy R. Ives, State Univ. of New York at Geneseo

Product Details

University Press of Mississippi
Publication date:
Banner Books Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.66(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

This is my home. This is where I was born. This is thebayou that runs in my dreams, this is the bayou bank thattaught me to love water, where I spent endless summer hoursalone or with my cousins. This is where I learned to swim,where mud first oozed up between my toes. This is where Isaw embryos inside the abdomens of minnows. This is whereI believed that if I was vain and looked too long into thewater I would turn into a flower.

    This is where I learned the legend of the greedy dog. Therewas an old dog on a raft and he had a bone in his teeth andhe looked down into the water and saw a dog carrying a boneand he dropped the one he was holding to snatch the otherdog's bone away and so lost both bones, the real and theimaginary.

    That's a new bridge. The one that was here when I wassmall had a beautiful elaborate scaffolding on top. I thoughtI must be a princess, of royal blood, to have such a bridgewith such a magnificent top. To have such land with so manybugs and a bayou with so many fish and mussels and gars andmaybe even alligators.

    This is the porch that at one time ran all the way aroundthe house. My grandfather built this house and my mothercame here when she was four years old. My brother was bornin that front bedroom. I was born forty miles away in ahospital and only came here three days later.

    The ghost of Eli Nailor walks these halls. He was a blackboy who was adopted by my great-great-grandmother whenhe was orphaned as a child. The woman I am named for raisedhim. He was the cook in this house all the days of his life andhad a cabin besidethe kitchen and the gardens and thehenhouse and the chickenyard.

    This was a good life. There were never slaves here. Theblack people came here after the Civil War; they were freepeople from Natchez. Black people and white people livedand worked here in harmony. My grandfather thought ofhimself as an Englishman. He was tall and proud and braveand civilized.

    Here is where my Aunt Roberta raised angora rabbitsduring the Second World War and there is the chickenhousewhere I spied on the Broad Jump Pit when my brother andmy cousins were training for the Olympics.

    This is the richest land in the world. The topsoil goesthirteen to eighteen feet in some places. You could growanything here. We grew cotton. We grow soybeans also now.My godfather, Coon Wade, farms this land. He was mygrandfather's friend. He serves that friendship still.

    This is my world, where I was formed, where I came from,who I am. This is where my sandpile was. I have spent athousand hours alone beneath this tree making forts for thefairies to dance on in the moonlight. At night, after I wasasleep, my mother would come out here and dance her fingersall over my sand forts so that in the morning I would see theprints and believe that fairies danced at night in the sand.

    This is where the barn used to be. There was a blackstallion here that we called the Count of Monte Christo andmules so mean they could scare you out of riding them.

    This is Ditty's cabin. She was as straight and tall as a tree,half black and half white. She told the other black peoplewhat to do. She was the mother of Mark and Inez and Man.I would come here and ask permission to come in and shewould grant it and I would step over the wooden doorframeto the dirt floor. I would sit on her bed, on her spotlessquilts, and eat cornbread and gossip about everything thatwas going on.

    Then I would go to the store and play the slot machine andsell snuff and drink cold sweet drinks and eat pork and beansout of a can. Life is not supposed to be simple but it seemedsimple to me. It was get up in the morning and be happy. Itwas go out in the yard and lie down on the ground and listento China.

    This is the levee. This is what keeps the Mississippi Riverwithin its banks. My father helped build this levee. I wasconceived in a levee camp in a huge green tent from theMemphis tent company. In those photographs my mother isalways wearing jodhpurs.

    Before the white man came the Indians built mounds toget on when the water rose. Before even the Cherokees camethe Mound Builders were here.

    This is the Indian mound with a house built on top wheremy grandparents spent the first year of their marriage. Thereare other mounds on Hopedale Plantation. My great-grandmotherforbade us to dig in them as they were sacredburial places. It was the only thing I ever remember Babbieforbidding us to do.

    This was my great-great-grandmother's room. She liveduntil I was four in perfect health. When they used suchthings she would spend the late summer in this room sewingtogether the long white cotton bags the black people draggedbehind them to pick the cotton.

    These are the catfish ponds that take the place of cattle.Flying over my home I am appalled at how much of the landhas been turned into catfish ponds. Things change. The onlyconstant is change. There is nothing to fear. The land is itsown God. It will heal itself if it needs to.

    I could never live in a city. I need to smell the earth. I needto be here when it storms. At night when I was small greatrainstorms would come swooping down across the Delta,tearing down the light poles and the telephone poles. Mygrandfather loved inventions. As soon as they invented thetelephone he and his fellow planters met in Grace andarranged to have telephones. Then each of them cut downtrees and strung wire and the wires met at the Grace postoffice and hooked up there to go to Rolling Fork and on toGreenville.

    This is Greenfields' cemetery. This is where my mother'speople are buried. Stewart Floyd Alford and Nell BiggsAlford and Margaret Connell and Ellen Martin and so forthand so on. My cousins and my friends.

    I wish they had lived forever. This country was made bypioneers. They probably could not have imagined us, ournumbers and our terrible problems, our crowded cities andwonderful medicines and bitter endless feuds. What will behappening fifty years from now that I cannot imagine? Whatwill my great-great-grandchildren think of me when theywalk in my house and read my books? When they try to piecetogether my life from my photographs and my legends.

* * *

The road to the store led past a line of pecan trees that lookeddown into the river. Swarms of gnats would come up out ofnowhere and attack my face if I was stupid enough to walkthere in the early morning or late afternoon. In the middle ofthe day the sun held them hostage on the bayou bank and Icould walk along kicking the gravel with my sandals orstopping to pull up a dandelion or examine a rock or pause tofeel my nickel in my pocket to make sure it was still there.Behind me Nailor and Baby Doll and Overflow and Henriettawere lined up on the porch stairs watching my progress. Infront of me the people sitting on the benches outside the storewere already thinking of things to say to me. "Goodmorning, little missy, how you do today?" "Look out, hereshe comes, the girl that sells the snuff. How much you goingto charge today for all your bags and cans?" "How aboutgiving a few cans away?" "Look out for that dog. He's theking of fleas."

    It was talk like music and it meant they liked me andthought that I was funny. I liked them too. I didn't haveenough sense to know what it meant to be black. It neveroccurred to me that they might want to do a single thingthey weren't already doing.

    "I'm not putting this nickel in that hell-damn old slotmachine today," I'd say, and go straight inside and stick it inand pull the handle. Two oranges and a bar. Three nickels forone. I stuck them in as fast as I could pull the handle. Thenturned to my cousin Cincinnatus to see what he had for meto do.

    "Lost your nickel already," he said, giggling from behindthe cash register.

    "I won three the first time," I answered. Yang and yin. Ialready knew the outcome was not the whole story ofanything. I knew the end contains the beginning. In thestrange way that children know everything because theyforget nothing, I knew that the loss of a nickel to thejudgment of the slot machine was nothing really, was only away to get the damn smelly thing out of my hand. What wasa nickel in the scheme of things? Buffalo on one side, WhiteHouse on the other, made your hand smell funny to hold itand if you swallowed it you were dead. My uncle Robert hada framed picture in his doctor's office of all the thingschildren had swallowed that he had retrieved. An open safetypin was the only one that really caught my eye.

    So the nickel was gone as so many had gone before it andI was no less than I had been and still had the walk to thestore, still had long cool baths in the tub that had been madeespecially for my grandfather, who was six feet four inchestall. A little girl could swim in that tub, could lie down anddrown if no one was watching, but they were alwayswatching, standing by with a hairbrush in their hands orsitting on a little stool and dripping water onto my back orbegging me to let them wash my hair.

    Dried with a big soft towel and carried down the hall anddressed in one of the beautiful soft cotton dresses they werealways making me. My great-great-grandmother had been amilliner in Philadelphia and the women in that house weregreat artists of fashion and style and beauty. The clothes Iwore when I was a child have spoiled me for life. At greatcollections in Paris or New York I turn up my nose at messyhems or anything that isn't French seamed or smocked byhand. When people ask me why there were so few womenartists in the past, I tell them it's because their definition ofartist is too narrow. I have worn dresses that should have wona Nobel. "Let me see that dress," everyone at the store wouldsay. "Look here, Iris, see this dress Miss Babbie made thischild." And their fingers would explore the rickrack orthree-inch hem or perfectly fitted sleeves or smocking. Thoseartists did not have to wait for some stranger in New York toovercome his or her fear and say, Oh, yes, this is a nice pieceof work. The audience and critics were right there in theroom waiting for the last whir of the sewing machine and themoment when the dress would come down from the sewingtable and be held up for inspection. What a life, with the sunpouring down outside on the richest land in the world. THERICHEST LAND IN THE WORLD and we were happythere. The black people and white people worked togetherand spoke their grievances and only sickness or death or rainin September could make us sad. The days were long in thatland of happy days and part of me lives there still.

    A writer once said that a walk becomes a journey whenthere is a destination. I had a destination every afternoonwhen I was small. I would walk from the house to the storeand if my nickel had to be sacrificed to my greed that wasonly one more gnat or interesting rock or possibly useful leaf.

Excerpted from Falling Through Space by Ellen Gilchrist. Copyright © 2000 by Ellen Gilchrist. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Ellen Gilchrist is the author of several collections of short stories and novellas including: The Cabal and Other Stories, Flights of Angels, The Age of Miracles, The Courts of Love, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, Victory Over Japan (winner of the National Book Award), Drunk With Love, and I Cannot Get You Close Enough. She has also written several novels, including The Anna Papers, Net of Jewels, Starcarbon, and Sarah Conley. Her 1994 novel, Anabasis: A Journey to the Interior, was published by University Press of Mississippi. She lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

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