Study Guide

Shiloh

By Bobbie Ann Mason

Shiloh Introduction

During a visit to Shiloh, a Civil War battlefield, a different sort of civil war simmering between a married couple finally boils over. But in the end, does anyone win?

"Shiloh" is a short story by Bobbie Ann Mason, an American woman writer (1940 - ) who grew up on a farm in Western Kentucky. Like most of her short stories and novels, "Shiloh" focuses on the everyday lives of ordinary, working people in Western Kentucky during a time of social, political, and economic change. Critics have put some colorful, semi-dismissive labels on her writing, calling it "Dirty Realist," "K Mart Realist," and "blue-collar minimalist hyper-realist" fiction (Source), as well as "grit lit" (Source). As creative as these literary critics might be with their catchy labels, we here at Shmoop generally consider Mason to be a minimalist because, like other authors who came to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, she uses a stripped-down writing style, focusing on surface details and themes of loss and alienation.

Cheerful stuff, right?

Break out your bell-bottoms and dust off that disco ball, because this story is set in the late 1970s. It's not all Bee Gees and roller skates though—the story is actually pretty somber. In it, we are introduced to Leroy and Norma Jean Moffatt, a married couple who are having trouble adjusting to the changes in their relationship after Leroy has a truck-driving accident that leaves him unemployed and at home.

Leroy is having a hard time finding his place in the changing world of the "New South," where big corporations, shopping malls, and fast food restaurants are transforming the rural landscape he grew up in. While Leroy is stuck in the past, resisting change and fixating on building a log cabin for his wife, Norma Jean is flexing her muscles (in more ways than one) as she prepares to fly the coop and leave Leroy and the past for a more fulfilling future.

"Shiloh" first appeared in the New Yorker magazine in 1980. Mason's first book of short stories, Shiloh and Other Stories, won the 1983 Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for best first fiction. Talk about a bold start. Since then, Mason has had a long, successful career, winning and being nominated for many literary awards. Her first novel, In Country (1985) was made into a film, starring Bruce Willis, in 1989, and country singer Rick Trevino even wrote a hit song called "Bobbie Ann Mason" about his former high school classmate—you know you've made it big when you have a country music star crooning your name.

What is Shiloh About and Why Should I Care?

"Shiloh" is set in a very particular time and place—a small town in Western Kentucky in the late 1970s. Leroy and Norma Jean Moffatt are spending more time together now that Leroy and his truck have "flown home to roost" (1.6), but they "feel awkward around each other" (1.9) and seem to be living in different worlds, even though they are under the same roof.

You're probably thinking, "Wait a minute—What does any of this have to do with me?" Even if you do happen to live in Western Kentucky, the 1970s were waaaaay before your time…so why should you care?

Well, it might surprise you to learn that the things people were worrying about in the 1970s aren't all that different from today. Back in the days of disco, the US was facing a pretty significant recession, spiking energy costs, and rising unemployment. Sound familiar? Maybe your area has been hit hard by the recession or natural disasters in recent years, and you've seen friends, neighbors, and even your own family members losing jobs and homes.

If so, you've probably noticed that not everyone reacts the same way to change and stress. You might know people who are more like Norma Jean—not only do they face reality head-on, they might actually get energized by a crisis. Instead of sitting around and feeling sorry for themselves, they're proactive, taking classes and learning new skills that will help them find their next job.

On the other hand, maybe you also know people like Leroy, who are reactive when faced with changeand try to avoid the new reality or escape it through substance abuse or wishful thinking.

The thing is, the proactive person isn't necessarily always a good person and the reactive person isn't necessarily a bad person. Some readers may find Norma Jean rigid and cold, and some will insist that Leroy has many good qualities.

One thing everyone is likely to agree on, though, is that these two are very different when it comes to coping with change and its accompanying stresses. After reading this story, take some time to reflect back on yourself. Are you more of a Norma Jean or more of a Leroy? What about your parents, siblings, friends? This story might give you some insight to better understand how you and those around you respond to stress, and if you ask us, that's some pretty important stuff to ponder.

Shiloh Resources

WEBSITES

America's Hottest Breakup Destination!
Now you can give your significant other the heave-ho just like your favorite fictional couple. Make like the Moffats and high-tail it to Shiloh National Military Park—and don't forget the Yodels. This website provides visitor information that can help you plan your trip. You can also learn about the historical significance of Shiloh and explore the site's educational and multimedia resources. Check it out.

Set Y'rself Down and Stay Awhile
Step inside the Bobbie Ann Mason's home(page), where you can read more about her life and work, and learn about upcoming book tours, readings, and other events. Y'all come back now!

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS:

From Kentucky Bluegrass to Vietnam Elephant Grass
There are no film or TV versions of "Shiloh," but if you liked the story, you will likely enjoy this film version of Bobbie Ann Mason's critically acclaimed first novel, In Country, which stars Emily Lloyd as a 17-year-old Kentucky girl whose father died in Vietnam before she was born, and Bruce Willis as her uncle, a Vietnam vet with PTSD. Together, they try to find meaning in and release from the past.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Is This One of Those Women's Lib Things?
If you want to read more about the feminist undertones in "Shiloh," check out this article, which argues that one of the most prominent themes of Mason's work is the changing ways in which men and women relate to one another. It goes into some pretty rich detail, describing how some of Mason's female characters try to forge new identities in response to shifting gender roles. Seems pretty convincing to us.

Hope is the Thing With Feathers.
A look at Mason's use of bird imagery in "Shiloh." Words of a feather… 

Writing Under the Influence
In an interview, Mason discusses various influences that shaped her as a writer, and boy, she has quite a few.

Town vs. Gown
This article explores the tensions in Mason's fiction between the personal growth found in pursuing an education, on the one hand, and the positive meaning and values of "home" that college-bound characters are leaving behind, on the other. This might be something a lot of college students can relate to—give it a gander and see what you think. 

Born to Run
In an interview, Mason discusses among other things, the role music has played in her life and her reverence for Bruce Springsteen. Deep down, we all kind of love Springsteen, don't we? 

A New View of the New South
A fellow Kentucky native agrees with Mason (but not with most critics of her work) that the changes brought by the New South are not uniformly negative, but open up possibilities for characters and offer them choices. It takes one to know one

VIDEO

But What Does That Moustache Symbolize?
A much mustachioed man, who goes by the moniker EnglishGuyinTexas, discusses "Shiloh," with a particular focus on the story's symbolism.

Country Crooner Moons After Mason
Country singer Rick Trevino sings a song about his supposed high school crush on Bobbie Ann Mason. According to Mason, "The song is not really about me, but it was named for me. The guy who wrote the song likes my fiction and the sound of my name." (Source). Aw shucks, Bobbie Ann, surely you're just being bashful.

AUDIO

A Writer's Early Chapters
In these two audio interviews (conducted by Don Swaim in the 1980s), Mason discusses Shiloh and Other Stories and what it was like growing up in Mayfield, Kentucky, among other topics. She has such a soothing voice.

IMAGES

Shutterbug Snaps Sister
Bobbie Ann Mason's kid sister LaNelle snapped this portrait of the author. Looks like someone has a future in photography.

Just a Country Girl at Heart
This photo (by former Kentucky Poet Laureate James Baker Hall) captures the country girl spirit of Bobbie Ann Mason.