Book reviewers, particularly Southern U.S. book reviewers, frequently pick through new “Southern” novels looking for “echoes” of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, or Walker Percy. (I wish some of them also would look for echoes of that good but now almost-forgotten Southern novelist James Street.)
Though I was born in Mississippi and grew up in Arkansas, I had never thought of Florida as “Deep South.” It was, after all, something of a military backwater during the Civil War (yet a vital place for smuggling in supplies for the Confederacy). During my 1950s youth, when bands played “Dixie” and all-white crowds stood up to raucously cheer, I always pictured the Deep South as ending at the southern borders of Georgia and Alabama. Florida never really entered my thinking as a Confederate state, even though it was among the first to secede.
There are, however, plenty of “Southern” echoes in Michael Morris’s fine new novel, Man in the Blue Moon, set in rural Florida during World War I. How the characters talk, think, and interact seem very Southern to me. And the values they hold, as well as the self-righteous justifications they bring to wrongdoings, also seem familiar and right in my recollections of growing up in the South. So I am happy to declare Michael Morris an excellent novelist “in the Southern tradition.” And I hereby amend my mental picture of the literary Deep South to include Florida – especially its panhandle.
In Man in the Blue Moon, Ella Wallace’s drug-addicted husband has disappeared and left her deep in debt in tiny Dead Lakes, Florida, with three young sons to support, a small store to run, and a tract of panhandle land “thick with pines and cypress.” Ella’s father had called the tract her “birthright” and, on his deathbed, begged her to hold onto it, no matter what. Now, however, a crooked banker in nearby Apalachicola has come up with a scheme to profit from Ella’s land and is playing every angle – some of them creepy and deadly — to gain possession of the acreage. At the same time, looming large in the background and close around, the infamous 1918 Spanish flu epidemic is taking lives with shocking suddenness.
Against this grim backdrop, a mysterious stranger enters Ella’s life in a very unusual way (no spoilers here). And he quickly has two strikes against him. One, he is a distant relative of Ella’s missing husband. And two, he seems to have both a troubled past and some abilities to heal sick and wounded animals and people. These simply heighten the suspicions that Ella and others hold against him. Yet, to save her land, her store and her family, Ella must trust him to help her and her sons try to harvest enough timber in time to pay off the bank note, even as murder, hypocrisy, and other troubles unfurl around them.
After reading and relishing Man in the Blue Moon, I am very pleased to add Michael Morris to my personal pantheon of fine Southern novelists. He brings his own echoes to the hall.
– Si Dunn