Book Review

Recently, many Americans have turned their attention to the rural-urban gap, which Laura Leigh Morris reveals to readers as she takes us into down-home America through her first collection of short stories. As the title suggests, Jaws of Life pries open the wreckage of its characters’ struggles in order to expose their deep humanity. Laura Leigh Morris’s tales from the fictional town of Brickton, West Virginia give readers a bird’s-eye view into a world that feels at times economically and socially left behind.

In Jaws of Life, the characters are linked by their rural environment, and their rural environment is linked to their struggles. These salt-of-the-earth characters face constant external struggles familiar to many people who live in rural America: poverty, lack of jobs, lack of resources, and the impact of energy extraction—particularly fracking. Yet at heart, these characters reveal internal struggles with which all readers can identify: how to maneuver through relationships, illness, death, and identity—and how to accept just how greatly our environments affect our lives.

Through many of the stories, the desire to escape is palpable. In “The Tattoo,” we see Jack preparing to propose to his girlfriend, Martha, when he stumbles on a tattoo that is a clear marker of a past life she’s never discussed with him. The characters, we find out, are alike in their desire to escape their vastly different pasts:

When they’d met, he was new to Pittsburgh from Brickton, West Virginia, and he was busy erasing his country twang and quitting dipping snuff. She was in the process of erasing the hippie artist she’d been in her twenties . . . .

The discovery of Martha’s tattoo, however, conjures up these hidden histories and forces Jack to accept his own past in order to preserve their relationship.

Like Jack, septuagenarian Harold in the title story, “Jaws of Life,” tries to leave his struggles behind when he delivers his failing wife, Iris, to a doctor’s appointment and leaves. As he drives farther and farther away, his intention to return wanes:

All he wanted was to fish on Saturdays and spend Sundays playing pinochle at the Elks. He wanted to watch TV in between naps and open his first beer at three. Instead, he put combination locks on the inside of their doors and reminded Iris who he was, who she was. And for a long time he didn’t mind. He’d been more than willing to take care of Iris, to make sure her final years were painless. He’d even told her, right after her diagnosis, “I’m here until the very end.”

As he drives away from his wife, Harold is the first on the scene of an accident involving a college student, Angie. Trapped in her crushed car, her arm protrudes through the wrangled metal as evidence of her survival. As they wait for help to arrive, Harold grips Angie’s hand and tries to keep her calm through conversation. When Angie confesses that she didn’t study for her exam and had been planning to copy off of a girl who “writes big,” Harold confesses his own wrongdoings:

“I wasn’t planning on picking my wife up from the doctor. I was going to leave her there.”
“That’s kind of bad,” she said.
“Yes,” he agreed, “It is.”
“You won’t leave me, will you?” Angie asked.
“I’ll stay ’til the end,” he said.

Through this touching story, Morris shows us how Harold is able to “let go” of his fears and fulfill his promises.

Most of the stories in Jaws of Life have a rawness that rings true, which makes them that much more afflictive. For instance, in “The Dance,” Bradley wrestles with his identity when an intimate encounter with his closest friend, Everett, rattles him. Hoping to avoid being labeled a high school sturgeon, one of “the poor and unclean,” Bradley wrestles with his feelings for Everett, who wears “ill-fitting clothes and shoes that split at the sole.” In the end, Bradley is forced to choose between being accepted by the popular kids or committing “social suicide” by defending Everett.

In “Frackers,” Mabel finds herself trapped in her own home after selling her mineral rights to the gas company, which erects a fracking well right next to her family home:

Picture it: four industrial bulbs, 1,000+ watts each, trained on the house all night. And it doesn’t matter if I use blackout curtains or move to another room—there’s no way to ignore the production happening just a quarter mile from my bedroom window. I can hear the workers yelling, the whine of machinery, the wrecks that sometimes happen because drivers are confused by the brightness. I can see the lights through closed eyelids.
When you’re looking at a check full of zeroes for just a few acres of land, you think about a new roof, replacing the furnace that hasn’t kept the house properly warm in at least ten years. You think about how you won’t have to pinch pennies until the beginning of the next month. You don’t think about the fact that fracking is a twenty-four-hour business. Or that they’ll point their lights straight at your bedroom window, then claim it’s the only angle that works.

But “Frackers” takes an unexpected turn when Mabel inadvertently starts a revolution against the gas company. Soon, anonymous deeds of resistance—graffiti protests, signs denouncing the well, and sabotage—pop up everywhere, lighting a fire in the heart of her little community. “‘You can’t stop [the revolution],’” Mabel’s friend Dewey says, and we are left hoping that these small acts of resistance by these small, overlooked communities will indeed never stop.

Through all the stories, Morris focuses on the quiet struggles. She elicits deep compassion for characters who seem to be on a ride that keeps trying to buck them off. This is a timely and important read bringing us closer to what it means to live in rural America.

About the Reviewer

Aurora D. Bonner is an environmentally charged writer and artist living in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania. In 2018, her writing has or will appear in the Colorado Review, Assay: Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Hippocampus Magazine, and Under the Gum Tree. In addition to other past publications, she has won first place in creative nonfiction at the 2016 Pennsylvania Writers Conference. Bonner has an MFA from Wilkes University.