Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris (Tyndale House Books; 400 pages; $13.99).
“Wars and plagues” can get people thinking it’s the end of the world. Such a bleak outlook only worsens when American boys die on foreign soil, when families lose their homes to foreclosure, and when a dangerous flu ravages communities. No, we’re not talking about wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. Neither are we discussing America’s most recent economic crisis. And no, this is not H1N1. The place is Dead Lakes, Florida; the year is 1918. World War I rages in Europe, and the Spanish flu rapidly spreads. Ella Wallace, though, has more important things to worry about than wars and plagues in Michael Morris’ timely novel Man in the Blue Moon.
Ella, Morris’ protagonist, is a woman ahead of her time. Ella’s future held great promise as a teen, when she dreamed of studying art in France. That dream died when Harlan Wallace and his handle-bar mustache walked into Ella’s life.
Her aunt tried to warn Ella, “[Harlan’s] a gambler at best. A con artist at worst.” Ella paid her no attention, which was too bad because her aunt was right about Ella’s future husband: he was a gambler and a con artist. After they married and their union produced three sons, another label was added to Harlan’s repertoire: alcoholic.
For Harlan, alcohol and gambling did not mix well. Harlan placed a bet on a racehorse and lost Ella’s land, the inheritance her father passed down to her. Before he died of typhoid fever, her father begged Ella never to sell her birthright.
One by one, Ella had been forced to sell her father’s possessions to pay off her husband’s debts. “His gold watch, the diamond-studdied tie clip, and the curls of hair that her father had maintained until death belonged to President Lincoln” had all been sold. The land was the only thing Ella had left and was very important to her. You could even say the land was special.
“The tract of land that sat on the Florida panhandle was thick with pines and cypress. An artesian spring fed a pool of water that local Indians claimed could remedy gout and arthritis. The acreage had been in her family for two generations.”
Harlan did not care. He lost the property anyway to the story’s principal antagonist, banker Clive Gillespie, a vile, dishonest man. To Clive’s chagrin, Harlan later won the land back in a drunken card game. Things got worse when Harlan traded his alcohol addiction for opium. One day, he just disappeared, leaving Ella to manage their country store alone.
This is not the life that Ella imagined. She can’t help but think people talk about her reversal of fortune: “What has become of Ella Wallace? What would her aunt think about her now?” she imagines them wondering. For Ella, it is difficult raising three boys as a single mother while working and managing the store. Ella and her family live a hardscrabble life. One thing they have an abundance of is love.
When it comes to the world outside, though, sometimes Ella feels as if it’s her against the world. Widows, she figures, are treated better than women whose husbands just up and disappeared. The gossip-mongering citizens of Dead Lakes look down on her. Ella, despite all the gossip and hateful looks, is proud and determined.
Ella needs that determined spirit once her mortgage comes due. She reads in the newspapers about all the homes that the bank is foreclosing on. Hers could be next, to Clive’s glee.
Clive has an agenda, and Ella stands in his way. He has a reason for wanting Ella’s property, and he will fight and connive to get what he wants.
Ella is desperate to pay the note on the land’s mortgage. But she can’t do it alone. Then, as if in answer to a prayer, Harlan’s alleged cousin, Lanier Stillis, shows up in Dead Lakes. He’s a rather shadowy and mysterious man, a picaresque hero, who proves his worth to Ella in a very unexpected way. When a crisis hits close to home, Harlan again stands by Ella. He seems to be a good and decent man. But is he telling Ella the truth about his past? Is Lanier Ella’s second chance at love?
Morris writes with a voice that is authentically Southern because he is Southern (he is a fifth-generation native of Perry, Florida). Southern culture and Southern characters come naturally to him. Because he is a Florida native, old Florida comes alive in his story. Morris charms readers the same way the springs mesmerize those who come to take a dip in their magical waters.
Man in the Blue Moon is rich with historical details. Morris carefully weaves key issues, people, and events into his story. The strongest of these is his depiction of the 1918 Spanish Flu. He uses a chant “I had a little bird/Its name was Enza/I opened up the window, and in-flu-enza.” Variations of this rhyme were very popular during this time. Morris also illustrates the anger of families whose sons returned home from battle only to die from the flu. As the illness wreaks havoc in Dead Lakes, Morris shows how the flu devastated families, communities, and towns.
In addition to the flu epidemic, Morris also shows two very different ways of life in old Florida. Ella and her family drive a horse and buggy; others own a car. Cotton export is slowly giving way to fishing and tourism. Morris even gives a nod to the oyster industry in nearby Apalachicola, the oyster capital of the world today. As one way of life wanes, another dawns. This is very apparent in Man in the Blue Moon.
With talk of a distant war, foreclosures, and a fatal flu, Morris gives readers a timely tale. His story takes place almost a century ago, yet it is so relatable to us today.
If you love historical fiction, then Man in the Blue Moon is required reading for you. Morris’ writing is always genuine and satisfying. His story is a tale of one family’s struggle and of a town that will either come together or be torn apart. There is much to admire within these pages, in particular the character of Ella. I daresay she would fit in well in 2012; maybe she would have a blog and be part of She Reads.
Morris enthralls and captivates readers with Man in the Blue Moon, the She Reads November Book Club selection. To discuss the story, connect with other readers, and even meet the author, go to She Reads. Don’t forget to enter the extraordinary giveaways there, one of which is guaranteed to make your eyes sparkle.