"Shiloh" by Bobbie Ann Mason

26Dec04

I thought the militaristic aspect that Mason imposes on Leroy and Norma Jean’s relationship was interesting. Norma Jean’s various activities — weight training, night school, even her organ playing — seem like boot camp or field maneuvers for her battle to leave Leroy. (The image of her marching around her kitchen with weights around her ankles is a particularly powerful example.) She even strategizes, waiting until she can leave Leroy — on a battlefield no less — without the dominating presence of her mother. Mason even references the origin of Norma Jean’s name as the Normans who invaded England.

I can’t quite decide what precipitated Norma Jean leaving Leroy, if there was just one thing. Obviously, she felt suffocated by his presence at the house: “In some ways, a woman prefers a man who wanders.” But Leroy might have invaded her domain in more ways than one. He has started all of these homey, though not specifically “feminine,” activities. His influence seems to dominate the home sphere; he continues to obsess about building a house throughout the story. Norma Jean responds by seizing a former piece of his sphere, weight training, and then moving out into Leroy’s former domain by pursuing activities outside of the house. Norma Jean’s confrontation with her mother also seems to be a crucial factor in precipitating the break up. She has been living under Mabel’s control for thirty-four years, hiding her smoking habit like a teenager. When she survives the confrontation over the cigarette, she gets braver in her interactions with her mother, correcting her mother’s pronunciation of “dachshund” and telling her to “shut up.” A tension existed between Leroy and Mabel over the fact that Leroy and Norma Jean got pregnant and, thus, married. Mabel seems determined in the story to keep Norma Jean and Leroy married so perhaps Norma Jean’s gaining confidence in dealing with her mother ultimately leads to her leaving Leroy.

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