Before she moved to Shaftsbury in 2008, North Carolina-born Megan Mayhew Bergman thought of herself as a Southern writer. Now her life is about as quintessentially Vermont as it gets. She lives in an 1834 farmhouse — her veterinarian husband’s childhood home — and tends the farm’s chickens, goats and horse. Inside, four dogs and four cats share space with the couple’s two young daughters and Mayhew Bergman’s father-in-law. Cows moo from across the road at night. Robert Frost’s old house is three miles away.
Many of the stories in Mayhew Bergman’s debut book, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, are set in the South — including the beautifully moving first one, “Housewifely Arts,” which novelist-editor Geraldine Brooks selected for The Best American Short Stories 2011. But their concerns — rural living, women’s situations, bonds between humans and animals — are of a piece with her intensely motherhood- and animal-focused Vermont life.
“I’ve always been attracted to rural life, but I’ve never lived it before moving here,” Mayhew Bergman admits during a phone call managed between cleaning up after a chronically sick dog and trying to put an unwilling toddler down for a nap. The 32-year-old worked as a business consultant while putting herself through a master’s in liberal studies at Duke University, which she followed with an MFA at Bennington College.
Now, on a photo-filled blog, Mayhew Bergman describes daily rounds of egg collecting with her baby strapped to her back, and efforts to steal writing time in the cobwebbed office of her in-laws’ old veterinary clinic. (Her husband moved back home to take over his parents’ practice.)
She believes such physical engagement with the world is “what makes writing good” — a lesson she tries to impart to her students at Bennington, where she teaches memoir writing and criticism. In Mayhew Bergman’s writing, sentences are spare and stripped of sentimentality, the dialogue shorn of quotation marks. Stories actively punt between present and past moments, conveying in a few brief pages a surprising depth to characters’ lives.
Those characters — all women — are often trying to come to terms with a tendency to care too much for others. An animal activist takes in abused pets and injured wildlife at the expense of her relationship. A dedicated young mother worries she’s a “fraud”; an older one laments her failures. Adult women care for their aging parents with complicated feelings. Through parenting, they begin to understand their own mothers’ tendencies.
“Mothers, I believe, intoxicate us,” comments the protagonist of “Yesterday’s Whales” after discovering she has become pregnant by a fervent population-control activist. “We idolize them and take them for granted. We hate them and blame them and exalt them more thoroughly than anyone else in our lives.” Looking at her 7-year-old son, the speaker of “Housewifely Arts” realizes that her own angrily distant mother’s “body ... was overrun with nerve endings that ran straight to her heart, until it was numb with overuse, or until, perhaps, she felt nothing.”
The author says she has found motherhood to be both “biologically satisfying in a way that other accomplishments in my life haven’t been,” and “a really hard job” in which failure is inevitable: “There’s no perfection in motherhood,” she says wryly. It has also made her aware of “the almost animal ferocity of the attachment. I don’t think you understand that until you go through it.”
“Animal” is not an accidental descriptor for Mayhew Bergman; her stories equally convey women’s devotion to animals, and a recognition of their mothering instincts as parallel to humans’. In depicting animal behavior, though, she is careful to have her husband — whom she calls “my patient muse” — edit “for accuracy and believability.”
Such gender-focused work by a woman doesn’t often win the level of recognition Mayhew Bergman has received, which has included publication in significant journals such as Narrative and Kenyon Review and a first-book contract with Scribner. Vida, an organization for American women in literary arts, recently released a study showing that a significant majority of literary reviews in 2010 covered books by men, and the reviewers were mostly men. The study confirms evidence of a literary environment in which, in one obvious recent example, Lorrie Moore’s excellent A Gate at the Stairs — the story of a mother’s effort to cope with the death of her child — received a fraction of the attention lavished on Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.
“I definitely follow the statistics,” Mayhew Bergman says, citing Jennifer Egan and Lauren Groff as contemporary women writers whose work shares her proclivities. But ultimately, she says, “I just appreciate the medium of fiction to be able to explore the idea of gender roles. Fiction can illuminate some essential human truths” — that of woman, mother and animal lover is, she says simply, “the perspective I have to offer.”
"Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories" by Megan Mayhew Bergman, Scribner, 225 pages. $24. The author talks about her life and her book on Saturday, March 10, at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, 7 p.m. northshire.com
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