Peery, Janet 1948–

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Peery, Janet 1948–

(Janet Sawhill Peery)


Born July 18, 1948, in Wichita, KS; daughter of Walter A. and Joyce Sawhill; married William Peery, January 23, 1976 (divorced, 1988); married Cy Bolton, November 5, 1994; children: (with Peery) Joanna, Gretchen, Bridget. Education: Wichita State University, B.A., 1975, M.F.A., 1992.


Office—Department of English, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA 23529. Agent—Leigh Feldman, Darhansoff and Verrill Literary Agency, 26th St., Ste. 802, New York, NY 10001. E-mail—[email protected]


Short story writer, novelist, and book reviewer. Worked as teacher of fiction at various colleges and universities, including Sweet Briar College, Warren Wilson M.F.A. for Writers program, Kansas Newman University, Antioch University/Los Angeles, Cumberland Writers Conference, and Old Dominion University M.F.A. program.


Writers at Work fellowship, 1990; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1990; Goodheart Prize, Washington and Lee University, 1991 and 1992; story chosen for Pushcart Prize, 1991 and 1992; Seaton Award, Kansas Quarterly, 1992; Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation Writers Award, 1993; Rosenthal Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1993; work selected for Best American Short Stories, 1993, and cited for being among "100 Distinguished Stories," 1993 and 1994; National Book Award finalist, 1996, for The River beyond the World; Guggenheim fellowship, 1998.


Alligator Dance (short stories), Southern Methodist University Press (Dallas, TX), 1993.

The River beyond the World (novel), Picador (New York, NY), 1996.

What the Thunder Said (novel), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to Best American Short Stories, 1993. Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including New Virginia Review, Shenandoah, Black Warrior Review, Chattahoochee Review, Kansas Quarterly, Southwest Review, and Quarterly West. Contributor of book reviews to periodicals, including Los Angeles Times and Washington Post Book World.

The River beyond the World has been translated into German.


Janet Peery's fiction has won acclaim since the beginning of her career. Her first collection of short stories, Alligator Dance, was highly praised by fiction writer Dorothy Allison in the New York Times Book Review. Allison noted Peery's penchant for having her characters muse introspectively about the large issues of their lives; she found this quality in the female narrators of the stories "Mountains, Road, the Tops of Trees" and "Job's Daughters." As Allison pointed out, Peery presents her characters—such as the racist young girl in "The Waco Wego"—at points at which they suddenly glimpse the past and present trends of their lives and, sometimes, the possibility of future change. Peery's stories, set in the Southwest, "pull you in," commented Allison, "startle you, stay with you long after you have finished the book; you are left feeling, as the author puts it, ‘stunned before the complex living heart of grace.’" Calling Peery's work "the product of a thoroughly engaged intellect, one that listened to her insides, one that has the blessing of both insight and a sense of humor," Allison declared Alligator Dance to be "one of the best first collections I have ever read."

The collection was also praised highly by writer Jeanne Schinto in Belles Lettres. Schinto described Alligator Dance as "excellent," and praised Peery's gift for language: "Here is an author with not only a voice, but also an ear." Language itself, Schinto noted, plays a role in many of the collection's stories. Otherness, observed the critic, is also a recurring theme in Peery's work: the otherness of a disfigured boy in the title story, or of a confused Mexican domestic worker in the United States in "Nosotros."

The logical next step in Peery's literary career was a novel, and Allison, in her review of Alligator Dance, expressly looked forward to the one that Peery was then writing. That novel, The River beyond the World, was published in 1996 and became a finalist for a National Book Award. Focusing on the long-term relationship between two women—a Mexican housekeeper and her American employer—the novel is a meditation on the two cultures as well as a story driven by complex personalities.

As Louise Redd commented in the Austin American-Statesman: "The expertly woven plot is a delight, but the real strength of The River beyond the World is in its fully realized characters; they linger in the mind long after the book is finished." In the Los Angeles Times, Richard Eder stated that "Peery is charting the mutual distrust and mutual need of two nations and two national characters; yet in the main she does it with fictional grace through her stubbornly individual personages." Eder noted that, while The River beyond the World is not a "polemic," it "replies to the current anti-immigration fanfare. It is not the labor of immigrants that the United States needs but the humanizing dimensions of their culture." Remarking on Peery's switch to composing longer works of fiction, Redd observed that "The River beyond the World achieves both the tense compression of a short story and the expansive vision of a novel."

Peery's next novel, titled What the Thunder Said, concerns the lives of two sisters, Etta and Maxine Spoon, who grow up during the 1930s in Oklahoma. The sisters and their parents must cope with the terrible dust storms that plagued that region of the United States during that era, and they also have storms in their personal lives. Maxine is the older of the two, but is overshadowed by her more outgoing younger sister. As they try to make lives for themselves, Etta and Maxine must face long-buried secrets and tragedy. The author "vividly evokes a parched landscape and parched hopes," according to Allison Block in Booklist. A Kirkus Reviews writer admired Peery's ability to write well about the demands of farm life and adapting to a hostile environment, and noted that "her characters have the imposing solidity of figures painstakingly carved from unyielding substance."



American-Statesman (Austin, TX), October 27, 1996, Louise Redd, review of The River beyond the World, pp. E6-E7.

Belles Lettres, summer, 1994, Jeanne Schinto, review of Alligator Dance, pp. 12-14.

Booklist, February 1, 2007, Allison Block, review of What the Thunder Said, p. 33.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2007, review of What the Thunder Said, p. 95.

Los Angeles Times, October 7, 1996, Richard Eder, review of The River beyond the World.

New York Times Book Review, January 9, 1994, Dorothy Allison, review of Alligator Dance, p. 9.


Old Dominion University Web site, (September 18, 2007), biographical information about Janet Peery.