I am a garage sale junkie. I spend many summer mornings going through the stuff other people no longer want cluttering up their homes. I search primarily for music CDs. With the advent of digital downloads, MP3 players, and the like, CDs can be had for a dollar each—or less!
I also find books I’ve been meaning to read. Best sellers in near-perfect condition often go for a couple of dollars—compared to fifteen or twenty dollars the booksellers demand.
Every so often I’ll find a gem that maybe didn’t quite make anybody’s best seller list. You know the ones: interesting cover, intriguing blurb on the back, a young author showing promise. This is how I came across a collection of short stories by a writer of whom I’d never heard. I found this book lying in a box with other books designated for sale to benefit a high school girl’s senior trip to a place I no longer recall.
I picked the book from the box, thumbed through its pages, got a feel for style and content. But it was the author’s short bio on the back cover that sealed the deal for me.
The book is called Downriver, and it’s written by Jeanne M. Leiby. Not a household name, sure, but Miss Leiby grew up in my home state of Michigan. I have a soft spot for Michiganders, be they writers, actors, or musicians. I feel the need to at least give them a chance to show me they’re worth supporting.
After purchasing the short story collection mid-summer 2013, I added it to the growing pile of books sitting in my closet. There it sat for several months, just waiting its turn to dazzle me. That turn finally arrived in early November.
To say Jeanne M. Leiby’s work pulled me in is an understatement. She writes the way people talk. She adds little quirks to her characters that you would swear you’ve seen in people you’ve personally met. There is a realism in Leiby’s work that makes readers appreciate her efforts.
I instantly became a fan. That she’s a Michigander only made this discovery that much sweeter. I had to know more about this amazing author. Does she have other published works? Has she written any novels? Info in her bio on the reverse of Downriver indicates she graduated from the University of Michigan (a hated school in my part of Michigan). She also received degrees from The Bread Loaf School of English/Middlebury College and the University of Alabama. Her short stories have appeared in publications such as Fiction, New Orleans Review, The Greensboro Review, and Indiana Review, among others.
I went online and dug deeper, learning Jeanne Leiby became a teacher, sharing her talents with students at the University of Central Florida. She won the 2000 Poets and Writers Writer Exchange. She served as fiction editor of Black Warrior Review and Editor-in-Chief of the Florida Review. In 2008, Jeanne took over as editor of The Southern Review at LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Oh, and if that’s not impressive enough, while working as an intern at a publishing house, Jeanne Leiby became responsible for finding and publishing White Oleander by Janet Fitch—which just so happens to be one of my all-time favorite novels.
But then I saw it, there at the tail end of her Wikipedia page. On April 19, 2011, Jeanne M. Leiby was killed in an auto accident in Louisiana. According to police, Miss Leiby was driving a 2007 Saturn convertible with the top down. She was not wearing a seat belt when she lost control of the vehicle, hitting a guardrail, before being ejected from the car. Doctors at a nearby hospital pronounced her dead on arrival.
That news kicked me in the stomach. I felt cheated. Here is this amazing talent from right down the road, and she’s gone before I get the chance to discover her work. But I also feel cheated by Jeanne M. Leiby herself. Had she exercised a little common sense and worn her seat belt, she just might still be here today, writing some brilliant prose that would make the rest of us writers jealous.
An amazing talent is gone from our midst, but her work remains with us. Do yourself a favor and invest in a copy of Downriver and see how good a short story can be.