Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes
by Deborah Smith, Virginia Ellis, Nancy Knight, Sandra Chastain, Debra Dixon & Donna Ball
(BelleBooks, $14.95, G) ISBN 0-9673035-0-8
Available from Amazon.com or from the publisher (www.bellebooks.com)
I have to admit at the onset of this review that I'm not a big short story fan. Give me a 500-page novel to sink my teeth into any day, but I generally don't understand how it is possible to have a deep and meaningful relationship with characters who only stick around for 10 or 20 pages. My husband, however, appreciates the genre. He claims that it is fiction in its most pure form, a neat little package of perfectly structured words and ideas. Done right, short stories have the potential to be just as rewarding as full-length novels.

Despite my reservations, I was pleasantly surprised by Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes (you've got to love the name), the launch title of BelleBooks. This independent small press was recently formed by six southern romance authors. Some of the 15 stories work better than others, but taken altogether they form a delightful, bright and sometimes crazy patchwork of Southern life, reflecting a proud and unique heritage. I can just imagine the six women sitting around the kitchen or the porch, swapping these tales, laughing and one-upping each other.

The strongest of the stories combine oddball humor, poignancy and eccentric family members, often with a zinger at the end. In Deborah Smith's "Nora's Ashes," the narrator faces the unusual dilemma of what to do with the ashes of a deceased great-aunt who had spent her life making everyone else miserable. At the same time, she realizes the stress that her mother has faced coping with the "Daddyside" relatives for many years. In "Grandma Tells a Tale" by Donna Ball, the narrator's Grandma Hilda manages to spin a fascinating yarn for her family one Christmas night, despite the fact that she has butchered every other story she has tried to tell.

The two stories that close the collection are the lengthiest, and stand in interesting counterpart to each other. The heroine in Debra Dixon's "Sweet Tea" watches in dismay as her Yankee fiance and her prospective mother-in-law react to a traditional Southern meal with barely disguised disdain. Donna Ball's "Fingerprints," however, depicts a typical family gathering that miraculously turns the newest in-law - a whiny, snobbish "city girl" - into a true family member. These two stories seem to contain opposite messages about the potential for outsiders to understand and fit into traditional Southern culture.

But I wouldn't spend too much time analyzing the meaning of the stories in Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes. Just sit back and listen to the voices. Here's a brief, random sampling:

Southerners of all backgrounds share a love for sports, at least for certain sports, such as football and baseball, both of which will allow a person of any social persuasion the opportunity to drink beer and holler outdoors. Basketball, however, is primarily a big-city attraction, meant to be played indoors without picnics spread on the grass or giant moths swarming under the stadium lights. Plus, there is very little spitting in basketball, either by the fans or players. ("Flying on Fried Wings," Deborah Smith)

It occurred to me that we frequently speak in platitudes. "Oh, he'll come to his senses." And they never do. Or, "I declare, that's the prettiest baby I ever saw." We say that even if the infant in question would draw a blister on an outhouse from a hundred yards away. ("Uncle Clete's Bell," Nancy Knight)

In the South you grow up steeped in tradition. It's not that you find the South particularly quaint or interesting. You simply have no choice. By the time Miss Eulayla Overstreet, or her equivalent, places the metronome-from-hell on the family piano, you know a few important things that will shape your life. You know who your people are, where the homeplace is, and that you will never, ever like the piano. ("Sweet Tea," Debra Dixon)

These authors' published romances span the genre, including historicals, categories, contemporaries and romantic suspense. Now they are editing and agenting their own work, and obviously having a good ol' time. The launch of Belle Books is definitely successful -- I'm eager to see where the journey takes them.

--Susan Scribner

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