BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Women in jeopardy. Women fleeing bad marriages. Women trying their damndest to heal damaged men.

These are some of the major themes sounded by Pam Durban in her new short-story collection, SOON. Durban, who teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina, sets all of her stories in the south, a region that has always produced strong, feisty women.

In “Rowing to Darien,” for example, we meet Frances Butler as she rows across the Altamaha River just after midnight. It’s March 1839 and Frances, daughter of the British actor Charles Kemble–and a budding actress in her own right–is trying to escape from her stultifying marriage to a wealthy Georgian farmer and slave-owner named Pierce Butler. Upset by the brutal way he treats his slaves, she has tried her best to reform him, change him. When that proved impossible, she knew that she must either flee the plantation or go mad with shame and guilt.

Although she fails to row her way to freedom–the river’s powerful tides defeat her–she eventually is able to wrangle a divorce from Pierce, but at the cost of her two children. Penniless, rootless, she must return to the stage in order to survive.

The story ends twenty years later. Frances is now the famous actress Fannie Kemble; Pierce, after having gambled and speculated away most of his fortune, must now auction off his slaves (in a “weeping time.”) When Fannie reads about the auction, while sitting on the porch of her house in Lenox, Mass., she is overcome with sadness. But she welcomes the feeling, “because by it she knows that the light of her conscience has not been extinguished.”

Durban relates this tale in a measured but warm and evocative way. Her use of language and sympathy for her characters, whether black or white, rich or poor, illuminates all of the volume’s eleven stories. But what makes her work special are the memorable female characters she creates. These women feel, act and think deeply, and they never give up on life, never quit striving and struggling.

(University of South Carolina Press, hdbk $22.95.