Book Review: Jaws of Life (Laura Leigh Morris)

Laura Leigh Morris. Jaws of Life. Morgantown, W.Va.: Vandalia Press, 2018. 168 pages. Softcover. $18.99.

Laura Leigh Morris’s debut collection of short stories, Jaws of Life, focuses on characters from a small town in West Virginia. Morris, who has had her fiction published in The Louisville Review, Weave Magazine, and other journals, gathers together some gems from previous publications alongside never before seen short stories that are guaranteed to strike a chord in the hearts of readers. The collection features sixteen of Morris’s short stories centered on West Virginians from all walks of life and full of trouble.

While the characters in Morris’s stories are not directly linked, they all share in common the small town of Brickton, West Virginia, around which Morris paints a vivid sense of place. Her use of dialect deepens the culture of the place she conjures, and her scenes are fully developed. The coal site in “Frackers,” the local tire shop in competition with the chain tire store in “House of Tires,” the dingy local diner in “Fat Bottomed Girls” that serves greasy food and a good time, and the country fairgrounds in “Popular” all serve to signal Appalachia at every turn.

Themes including fracking, high school football, community, religion, and poverty, will be familiar to anyone who has a relationship to the Appalachian region. Morris thus ensures that readers see Appalachia in a current light. She includes an example of grassroots activism against a fracking company, a gay character who struggles with his identity in his community, and highlights Appalachia as a place with access to technology.

Such characters in these stories are clearly part of the modern world. The one exception is the old man in “Grief” who replaces his wife with a dog, even dressing the dog in his wife’s clothing. Although the character’s deep grief explains his bizarre behavior, the man’s deviant sexuality reads a little too much like the stereotype of Appalachians as somehow less than human. Morris does, however, make sure to show this elderly character is not the norm.

Perhaps most importantly, Morris weaves in historical context that helps to explain the behavior of her characters. No situation in her stories is without explanation, and while none of her characters are saints (thankfully), their actions are real. Her characters make mistakes and have to pick their battles, both internal and external.

From outside-the-region bullies Ernie and Oscar, with their mock-country style in “Brickton Boys”; to Ruth, the frazzled single mother in “Winners”; to Everett and Bradley, who are struggling with their sexuality in “The Dance”; Morris’s characters ring true.

Morris should be commended for the diversity of her characters. She manages to give them vitality in such few pages whether that character is a teenage girl struggling with the trials of a changing body, a woman in a knitting circle at prison, or a young man who is a master of funeral photography. Although the longest story in Jaws of Life is only sixteen pages long, her characters are fully realized.

Each story in this collection is standalone and bite-sized. But readers will be left looking forward to their next chance to sit down with Morris’s writing. Her stories are exciting, full of twists, of mistakes, and of the uncertainty about where one decision can take a character. It is this balance that makes Jaws of Life so satisfying. These stories feel like real life instead of just words on a page.

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