Study Guide

Shiloh Summary

By Bobbie Ann Mason

Shiloh Summary

"Shiloh" is set in a small Western Kentucky town near Paducah and told from the point of view of a voice we don't get to hear from much in literature: an unemployed truck driver named Leroy Moffitt. Leroy has been home for three months recovering from an accident he had while out on the road. He and his wife Norma Jean are both 34 and have been married for 16 years. Remember, back in these days, getting married as a teenager wasn't just for people on MTV reality shows—it was actually pretty common.

A few months after their marriage (and high school graduation) Leroy and Norma Jean had a baby named Randy, but he died of SIDS four months later. While Leroy was still spending a lot of the time on the road, it seemed to him that nothing about his life with Norma Jean had really changed since Randy's death, but now that he's home all the time, "[h]e sees things about Norma Jean he never noticed before" (3.1), and "he notices how much the town has changed (2.1). Nothing feels familiar anymore; Leroy feels like a stranger around his wife and cut off from their community, where "subdivisions are spreading…like an oil slick" (2.1) and the "grand and complicated" houses "depress him" (3.2). Don't worry Leroy, we'd be pretty bummed to see that happening, too.

As the story unfolds, we see the different ways Norma Jean and Leroy respond to the change in their home life and the world around them. Leroy clings to his traditional ideal of marriage, where the man is king of his castle (or cabin) and provides for his wife, who stands by her man while doing the cooking, cleaning, and child rearing. Since the accident, Leroy mostly just sits around drinking beer and smoking pot, observing life from the sidelines. He works on pointless craft projects, drives aimlessly around the neighborhood, buys marijuana from a local doctor's son, and orders plans for a log house. He has no meaningful goals and resists Norma Jean's efforts to literally and figuratively get him back on his feet.

Norma Jean doesn't seem interested in Leroy's plans to build her a home and keep her there. She has a job that she takes seriously and is interested in developing her mind and body. In addition, her experiments with cooking foreign dishes reflect her openness to trying new things and exploring the wider world. We're sure you can see where this is going. How were these two even married in the first place?

Spoiler alert: tensions develop between the couple. Things also get pretty heated between Norma Jean and her mother, Mabel, who, like Leroy, clings to the past and traditional gender roles and continually nags the couple to visit a Civil War tourist attraction, believing it can save their marriage.

These tensions come to a head at the end of the story, when the past and present collide at Shiloh—which, quite fittingly, is a battleground—where Norma Jean tells Leroy she wants to leave him, something he's been expecting but trying to deny throughout the story. On a picnic at Shiloh, near the "cemetery for the Union dead" (7.11), Norma Jean tells Leroy what he has been feeling and fearing all along…their own union is dead.