Tag Archives: Southern literature

Book Review: Rivers by Michael Farris Smith

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

     rivers   “He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and the sunshine glistened across the drenched land,” Mississippi native Michael Farris Smith writes in Rivers, his riveting new novel of speculative fiction.  In Rivers, Smith imagines a chilling future for the Gulf South, where relentless, Katrina-like storms roll in one after the other.

Although Hurricane Katrina did not hurt the author directly, seeing his state “suffer in that way” deeply affected Smith, he explained during a reading at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.  He originally thought that he wanted to write a Katrina or a post-Katrina novel.  After starting and stopping several times, Smith was unhappy with the direction in which he was heading.  The writing “felt really contrived” to him, and the “last thing” he wanted to do was “cheapen” the tragedy for those who experienced Katrina’s wrath.

Smith could not get the idea of storms out of his mind, however.  “To hell with Katrina,” he decided.  The wheels in Smith’s head slowly began to turn.  “What if after Katrina there came another one like a month later and after that there came another one just a couple weeks later?  And then what if for five or six years we essentially had a Katrina-like storm that never ended in the Gulf?  What would the world look like?”  Smith’s setting suddenly clicked, but he knew he could infuse even more conflict into his place, intensifying the mood and the story.

When Rivers begins, 613 days have passed “since the declaration of the Line, a geographical boundary drawn ninety miles north of the coastline from the Texas-Louisiana border across the Mississippi coast to Alabama.”  Things only got worse “after several years of catastrophic hurricanes and a climate shift,” suggesting “there was an infinite trail of storms to come.”  The “consistency and ferocity of the storms” have not diminished but have instead accelerated.  This is the environment in which Smith plunges his characters and us—dark, elegiac, primeval, and utterly compelling.

With the stage for his conflict set, the author needed a main character.  Smith kept seeing “an image of a guy waking up in the middle of the night on family land outside of Gulfport after he’s been trying to live down there through all this, and he goes outside…gets on his horse, [and] splashes around to see what’s going on.”

That man is Cohen, a pragmatic Southern stalwart who stays in his home despite ruthless weather, anarchy, and violence.  The federal government got out of Dodge long ago, but not Cohen.  He insists on staying not because of stubbornness but because he possesses mile-wide streaks of idealism and sentimentality.  These traits, along with his memories, keep him from living a life north of the line.

Two recollections especially mark Cohen.  The first is the tragedy that befalls Cohen and his wife, Elisa, as they attempt to evacuate the coast during a maelstrom.  Smith writes, “On the asphalt of Highway 49, underneath an eighteen-wheeler, surrounded by screams of those who were running for it as they had all seen them coming, the handful of tornadoes breaking free from the still black clouds, like snakes slithering down from the sky, moving toward the hundreds, thousands of gridlocked cars that were only trying to do what they had been told to do.”  As the tornadoes close in on the couple and explode “through the bodies and the cars and the trucks, metal and flesh” fly in all directions.  Cohen, powerless at that moment, can only watch as his wife and unborn daughter die, a scene that makes for emotional reading.  The other memory from which Cohen cannot escape and returns to time and again throughout the narrative is his reminiscence of a vacation he and Elisa once took to Venice, Italy.  One cannot help but compare Venice, the floating city, to New Orleans, itself a precarious metropolis that features into the story.  These vignettes offer greater insight into Cohen’s mindset.

If Cohen leaves the coast, he fears he will desert Elisa, his birthplace, and even a part of himself.  With a horse named Habana and a dog as his only companions, Cohen trudges across a dark and stormy landscape and struggles to hold onto a past that is getting harder and harder to cling to as the last vestiges of the old world crumble around him.  Practicality and romanticism are at war inside Cohen, which Smith ably demonstrates in the story.  Cohen knows his home is forever altered; he knows that to stay is a lost cause; he knows there is nothing left for him.  But he cannot do it—he cannot leave.  Smith envisaged Cohen, an extremely intricate and layered personality, so complex, intriguing, and damaged, and rendered him perfectly.

The author peoples Rivers with equally strong minor characters—Mariposa, a haunted young woman from New Orleans; Charlie, an old friend of Cohen’s family who is the go-to guy on the coast; Aggie, a man who lures women and men to his compound for his own nefarious purposes; and Evan and Brisco, brothers who have only each other.

When something unforeseen and unwelcome happens to Cohen, he is right in the thick of things and must decide, once and for all, if michael farris smithhe will be a man of action or inaction.  Cohen may be an unlikely hero, but we all are really.  Heroism is thrust upon him, just as it is forced upon so many ordinary people in extraordinary times.  Smith takes Cohen on multiple odysseys in Rivers, fully developing his main character and binding him to us.  I believe Cohen will appeal to readers because he is an Everyman type of figure, relatable, likeable, and sympathetic.  He is the sort of guy you would see at the local football game on Friday nights, barbequing on weekends with a beer in one hand, and driving his old Chevy around town.

If you enjoyed Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, and Cormac McCarthy’s works, you will surely appreciate Smith’s clarity, vision, and voice.  Rivers, as Smith tells me, “is about redemption” and “survival both emotionally and physically,” universal themes we can all understand.  Perhaps that is why Rivers struck such a chord with me.  The gloomy, sinister future of which the author writes is not implausible but wholly possible and therefore terrifying.

If Rivers is made into a movie (Please God), I’d love to see Matthew McConaughey as Cohen, Billy Bob Thornton as Charlie, and America Ferriera as Mariposa.

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Book Review: Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris

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.”

Artist rendition of Ella’s land in Man in the Blue Moon

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.

Main giveaway

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Book Review: The River Witch by Kimberly Brock

The River Witch by Kimberly Brock (Bell Bridge Books; 239 pages; $14.95).

                Kimberly Brock knows books; in fact, she loves them.  Brock, a native Southerner and former actor and special needs educator, is the blog network coordinator at She Reads.   She also reviews fiction and interviews authors on her website.  Her intense love of storytelling is readily apparent.

It should come as no surprise to learn that Brock wrote her first novel when she was in fourth grade.  As evidenced in her debut The River Witch, writing comes as naturally and as easily to Brock as reading and breathing.

In The River Witch, Brock focuses her narrative lens on Roslyn Byrne, a former ballerina now broken in body and shattered in soul.  A car accident left Roslyn unable to dance again; a miscarriage left Roslyn hollow and in a kind of in-between world.  She seeks solace on isolated Manny’s Island, Georgia, to escape the world and to finally bestow a name on her deceased baby.

Roslyn is a very sympathetic character, yet this reader never feels sorry for her.  She is a strong woman who comes from a long line of strong women.  Roslyn requires the use of a cane to help her walk.  The cane provides physical aid to Roslyn, but it is also symbolizes her wounded psyche.

There are many, many issues Roslyn grapples with in the cabin she rents on the island.  With the character of Roslyn, Brock has created a three-dimensional figure we not only relate to but also root for. Brock’s first-person perspective of Roslyn allows us to see her flaws, her disappointments, and her regrets; Brock also lets us see Roslyn’s triumphs.  Her indomitable will is palpable and resonates throughout the story.

Roslyn is not the only broken creature on Manny’s Island.   Ten-year-old Damascus Trezevant is a lonely and dejected little girl who aches for her deceased mother and her largely absent father.  She is drawn to Roslyn, just as Roslyn is captivated by Damascus.  In contrast to Roslyn’s narrative, Brock writes Damascus’ perspective in the third person.  I like the difference.  The distinction illustrates Brock’s range as a storyteller.

The beauty of The River Witch is in the complicated and beautiful ballet between Roslyn and Damascus.  Damascus alternately displays both affection and spite toward Roslyn.  Both principal characters have pent-up emotions that they must exhibit or everyone will suffer the consequences.  Both of Brock’s protagonists ache for an emotional connection and a sense they belong.

One character who I would have liked to see more of is Urey, Damascus’ father.  Mysterious, taciturn, introspective, sexy, and almost savage, Urey needs more of a presence in Brock’s story.  Roslyn’s chemistry with him is powerful.

Since Brock is from Georgia, The River Witch is written in a distinctly Southern voice.  I cannot imagine this novel being set anywhere else.  In the story, sense of place is a formidable force.  Manny’s Island is a locale that allows Brock to imbue supernatural elements into her story.  The magic of the island and the magic of Brock’s characters will transform the land and its people forever.

Manny’s Island can sometimes be a wild and dangerous place.  Snakes and alligators are abundant.  The current of the Little Damascus River can carry novice swimmers into the Atlantic.  Flooding is common.  Yet the island is also a place for miracles, where a woman is healed, where a child is mended, and where the wrongs of the past are reconciled.

Brock is already at work on her second novel.  If it’s anything like The River Witch, it will be a must-read.

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