Megan Mayhew Bergman is a top-notch emerging writer. In this first book, “Birds of a Lesser Paradise,’’ a collection of a dozen stories, she portrays in fine realistic prose female characters balancing relationships with their fathers, mothers, and partners, as they fight their own foibles and insecurities. Her characters are strong, sensible, but vulnerable.
Bergman’s stories take place mostly in the South - on a prison farm, in the Carolina swamp, and on the road. (A North Carolina native, Bergman lives now in Vermont.) But no matter the locale or the humans involved, there’s always an animal of some sort - a dog, a bird, a cow, a wolf - that influences her characters’ lives.
In one of the best stories, “Housewifely Arts,’’ a single mother has been transferred to a job in Connecticut, a state where her son “has a better chance of escaping childhood obesity, God, and conservative political leanings.’’ She had never gotten along well with her own mother, now dead, but realizes she needs something to remember her by, “a scrap, a sound, a smell - something.’’ So she and her son drive to a small roadside zoo near Myrtle Beach to hear a 36-year-old parrot, once her mother’s pet, mimic her dead mother’s voice. “Housewifely Arts’’ was included in “The Best American Short Stories 2011.’’
The exciting title story finds Mae, 36, and college-educated, returning to the dying North Carolina town where she grew up. There, she assists in her father’s business as a bird guide in the swamp. She meets a neighbor, Smith, a good-looking stranger, with whom she enjoys a brief fling; after all, it “could be years before one appeared again,’’ she jokes. Mae wants to please her father and herself. And soon, she, Smith, her father, and Betsy the dog go on an adventure looking for the possibly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, an adventure in which she becomes “furiously alive.’’
A young veterinarian in “Saving Face’’ tries to adjust to life in Raeford, N.C., after being disfigured by a wolf. Life there is “[w]ashed-out. Full of regret.’’ And her self-confidence is as “crippled as her face.’’ While evaluating livestock at the nearby prison farm, she’s attacked by an inmate who wants to prevent her from putting a calf to sleep.
Motherhood is the theme of “The Urban Coop’’ and “The Cow That Milked Herself.’’ The narrator of “The Urban Coop’’ wants to have a baby, but after neglecting and almost losing her dog, she worries: “[I]f I can’t take care of my dog, I don’t deserve a baby.’’ “The Cow That Milked Herself’’ is a story about confidence, fear, and loneliness as a pregnant woman fears miscarriage, premature delivery, and autism.
In “The Right Company,’’ the narrator leaves her husband, an animal behaviorist, who’s been cheating on her. Though she is not religious, she prays to Mary: “Let me, for once, forget about men and be happy.’’ “Night Hunting,’’ which takes place in Vermont, finds the teenage narrator coming to terms with her mother’s breast cancer, though she dreads living through her mother’s death.
Bergman’s stories are a pleasure to read, and their animal motifs provide a sort of subjective correlative, if you will, offering insight into the human condition, and sometimes vice versa. Bergman possesses a crisp and often poetic voice and wily, intelligent humor. She tells me she is working on a novel. I can’t wait to read it.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at email@example.com or on his blog at josephpeschel.com/HaveWords.