In the small southern pocket of a north Florida community called Nokofta, Cauthen’s men and women move through lives no longer possible since the 1950s. At home, in church or at school, along paths and roads, in woods and fields, young Maggie Rider searches for an understanding of her hometown and her own place within it. She takes stock, too, of her mysterious uncle, the brokenhearted loner Gus whose secret existence in a converted hen house is a mystery she has dedicated herself to solving. In these layered stories we glimpse an early 20th century Florida that no longer exists and charactersin The Salvation of Maggie Rider, “Maudie May,” and “Eva’s Barn” united in their timeless and compelling need to make sense of what has gone before.
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Sudye Cauthen¿s novella The Salvation of Maggie Rider opens at a funeral in the north Florida town of Nokofta. In an intriguing prologue, the preacher at this funeral chides his congregation, and himself, ¿We all saw in Gus what we didn¿t want to see in ourselves. Easy, wasn¿t it, to say, `tch, tch, crazy old Gus.¿ He was dirty and we were clean.¿There is an awful lot of rumination on the meaning of place, of history, and of family in this novella, and the two short stories that accompany it. It could have been maudlin or dry if it had tipped too far in one direction or another, but Cauthen has a really artful and excellent touch with this sort of material. In her previous book, Southern Comforts, she explored these themes from a point of view that was equal parts historical and personal, but here, a thirteen-year-old girl named Maggie Rider Hernandez takes center stage. In the fall of 1956, Maggie has become consumed with curiosity about her uncle, the same ¿crazy old Gus¿ who is being laid to rest in the prologue.Gus is the novella¿s other central figure, a man who has been lost in the modern world for some time, who in his younger days ¿went on plowing the high plum-colored fields with two silver mules [¿] as though neither he nor they would ever grow old, as though the life he loved could last forever,¿ even as his father¿s farm hovers on the brink of financial collapse. ¿Even before he was twenty, Gus had dwelt in memory, in a less complicated time, but ultimately, memory had become for him not a corridor, but a catacomb,¿ says Cauthen, and, indeed, by 1956, when his young niece begins to study him and wonder about him, Gus is living in a converted hen house in his brother¿s back yard, talking to shadows.I don¿t want to hand out too many ¿spoilers¿ here, because a reader deserves the chance to see this story unfold on its own. I will say that Maggie and Gus are both ultimately transformed by Maggie¿s quest to understand what has happened to her uncle to make him the way he is. Her search for clues to her uncle¿s history lead her through the whispered, half-obscured story of her own family¿s history, and of the history of Nokofta. At one point, she connects intimately with her own history when she seeks out the midwife, Rebecca Rider, who brought her into the world ¿ and whose name she bears ¿ in hopes that this woman will be able to illuminate some of her uncle¿s secrets.The reader has an advantage over Maggie, learning much of Gus¿ story through flashbacks that reveal the details he will never tell his niece. He remembers a girl named Esther Lilley, a girl he loved as a young man and planned to marry. Gus, in these scenes from the past, imagines that their future together will be holy, ¿joined by the children they would create,¿ that he will ¿love her as Christ loved the church,¿ but when things go suddenly, dreadfully wrong, Gus retreats into the catacomb of memory that Cauthen describes. It is the persistent curiosity of his niece, her presence that is suddenly so hard to ignore, that seems to bring Gus as much back to life, as much into the present, as anything could. Finding Maggie in his cabin at one point, Gus thinks about how ¿[h]e has avoided human contact, brooded alone in the big chair in this dark room, through all eternity it seems until now, here, when this child in her innocence has challenged the darkness. Somehow, after all this time, she knows his need of light.¿The two short stories also included in this volume, ¿Maudie May¿ and ¿Eva¿s Barn,¿ also deal with characters who struggle to reconcile the past and the present without turning their back on either one. Readers who need a lot of rip-roaring action in their fiction may not care for these stories, but I found them both to be thoughtful, poignant studies of the fact that time, in the human heart, is by no means linear.