I reviewed this book back in 2012 for the Mobile Press-Register. It’s now available in paperback from Plume and would make a fabulous summer read!
Morgan Callan Rogers has been a librarian, a journalist, an actress, an editor and a teacher. She can now add novelist to the list; at age 60, she has published her debut novel, “Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea,” proving it is never too late to write that first book. Part mystery, part coming-of-age tale, this is a character-driven novel of wit and tenderness.
The star of “Red Ruby Heart” is Florine Gilham. When the novel begins, Florine is somewhat of a rabble-rouser: “After we almost burned down a summer cottage, my friends and I were not allowed to see each other for the rest of July and August. It was 1963, and I was twelve.” Lines like this make Florine funny and unforgettable.
Florine and her family live in a Maine village, a seaside hamlet where everybody knows everybody else and where fishing is the livelihood of the community. Florine is best friends with Dottie, Glen and Bud. Together, they plan to set off fireworks near the homes of vacationers. A boy their own age, Andy Barrington, son of the very wealthy Edward Barrington, sees and joins in the fun. The fireworks go off, and they are all caught. The kids apologize; Mr. Barrington does not press charges. Rogers uses this episode to show how Florine’s childhood and her hometown are idyllic and reflect the relative innocence of America during the summer of 1963. But change comes quickly.
When President John F. Kennedy is assassinated on November 22, 1963, Florine does not react as her classmates and teachers do. “At least they know what happened to him,” she thinks. The worst thing imaginable has already happened to Florine. For her, “The world appeared to be made of a dangerous quicksand that could suck down mothers or presidents at any time.”
With her mother’s disappearance and the assassination of the president, Florine’s once idyllic existence is no more. Years pass; she grows up; her friends and family grow apart. Still the mystery remains: What happened to Carlie? As is often the case in real life, the mystery goes unsolved.
There are relatively few drawbacks to “Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea.” Most notable for me is the absence of references to1960s milestones and social upheavals. Rogers does not mention the 1969 walk on the moon, the civil rights movement or the antiwar movement. Florine’s friend Bud is drafted in 1969, near the end of the novel, but other than that, the Vietnam War is not mentioned. The insulation of Florine’s hometown may explain the dearth of references to civil rights, but not the Vietnam War.
Another flaw, also near novel’s end, occurs when an 18-year-old Florine meets Andy Barrington again and falls in love with him, which I feel is out of character for her. I wonder if Rogers thinks so, too, for she disposes of him rather quickly. By the end of the book, Florine is on the verge of adulthood, and so much has changed since 1963. That is true of both Florine and her country.
While reading “Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea,” I could not help but recall Alabama’s own Fannie Flagg and her novel “Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man” (originally titled “Coming Attractions”). Florine Gilham reminds me of Daisy Fay Harper. Like Daisy Fay, Florine is sassy, funny and clever. Also like Daisy Fay, Florine loses her mother at a young age and has to deal with the repercussions. Both Flagg and Rogers compel the reader to root for their protagonists as they grapple with massive changes and approaching adulthood. Both write coming-of-age novels with hilarity and a whole lot of love.
I recommend “Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea” to fans of Flagg. Readers will enjoy this novel, set in a seaside community with authentic and rich characters. If anyone wonders what happened to Carlie, take heart. The author tells me via e-mail that she is working on a sequel. I, for one, cannot wait for more Florine.