'Acts of God': First time read inspires interest in other works

Ellen Gilchrist’s new short story collection, “Acts of God,” finds people struggling against forces beyond their control. Gilchrist, a National Book Award winner, shines a light on the combination of naivete and courage that allows us to confront untenable situations.

While Gilchrist is the author of more than 20 books, this is the first I have read.

She is known to revisit characters over time, but these stories don’t require knowledge of previous exploits. Each explores a self-contained world that offers insight into the wider world we all inhabit.

I particularly admire the title story, which is the first piece in the book. “Acts of God” is a story about the mysteries of causation, the ways in which small events can add up to enable major events. Gilchrist foreshadows her tale with a beautifully crafted, single-sentence second paragraph:

“Because the sitter was late, Mr. William Angus McCamey and Mrs. Amelie Louise Tucker McCamey were alone from seven on Friday night until ten forty-five on Saturday morning, after which it didn’t matter anymore whether the sitter was watching out for them.”

I also enjoyed “The Dogs,” a story told entirely in letters. In general, I find epistolary narratives gimmicky and overly mannered.

But Gilchrist manages to sneak an offbeat love story into the exchanges about some incorrigible canines. Rhoda Manning is the woman at the center of the story, and she is also the title character of two of Gilchrist’s previous books. I find myself inclined to get to know her — and Gilchrist’s other work — better.

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