Elizabeth Gilbert published Pilgrims, her beautiful, bristly short story collection, in 1997, nine years before Eat, Pray, Love, her exuberant, raw meditation on divorce, depression, and healing, made her suddenly famous enough for Julia Roberts to slip on gladiator sandals and beads to play her in a film version of the book. It’s a shame that Pilgrims will now probably be forever eclipsed by Eat, Pray, Love since it, too, peels back convention to reveal, with empathy and droll language, the primitive nuttiness and courage that lends ordinary people heart.
By definition, modern pilgrims are wanderers, struggling through daily grinds to find redemption, or the true purpose of life. Each of the tart, spiny characters inhabiting Gilbert’s 12 stories is searching for something her pilgrims hang out on ranches and in bars, in remote corners of Wyoming and Montana, and vegetable markets in the Bronx. There is sturdy Martha Knox, a ranch cook, with a dark, brown braid “thick as a girl’s arm”, and Rose, an elderly widow who drives a kindergarten school bus, crammed, one morning, with ghosts, all adoring suitors from her unchaste past. None of Gilbert’s characters is immediately charming, but all compel with their routine habits and dustbowl looks.
Coleen Marlo, narrator of Pilgrims, has a silk slip of a voice that ably roams from the coarse drawl of a rodeo cowboy to the hollow whine of Babette, a bawdy Manhattan nightclub singer. Marlo passes up the easy fixes of pinning characters with cartoonish regional accents or undermining their essential dignity by assuming an absence of formal education translates into broken English. Pilgrims is both buoyant and prickly. Under Marlo’s finespun, intelligent narration, listeners will find an intuitive collaborator to Gilbert’s good flow. Nita Rao