“Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society” by Amy Hill Hearth (Simon and Schuster, $15)
BY DAWN BAUMGARTNER VAUGHAN
Two new Southern novels, both set in small-town Florida in the 20th century, both spin yarns in the great Southern storyteller tradition that makes them great gifts this holiday season.
“Man in the Blue Moon” by Michael Morris is set in rural Apalachicola, Fla., in 1918, as World War I was ending and the flu pandemic was spreading. At the center of the tale is Ella Wallace, whose drug-addled husband took off and left her to fend for herself with their sons and store on her family’s land, soon threatened by a local villain with trick after trick up his sleeve. Woven into that story is the arrival of Lanier, a mysterious man who arrives in a clock box and brings trouble as well as salvation. Morris develops quite a cast of characters, so you can plop down on the page and live life in the Florida swamp – bugs buzzing, preacher sweating and gossip swirling around you. Conflicts aren’t resolved as readers might think, and that’s what makes this novel worthy of being wrapped up and placed under the tree as a gift. There’s action, drama, intrigue and grief – love, too. Maybe buy one for a gift and another for yourself.
The other Florida-set novel to stuff in a stocking is “Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society” by Amy Hill Hearth.
You may already know Hearth’s name – the former journalist wrote the nonfiction book “Having Our Say: The Delany Sister’s First 100 Years,” which was a bestseller and play. “Miss Dreamsville” is Hearth’s first novel, and her fictional storytelling is just as captivating. A somewhat lighter, shorter read than “Man in the Blue Moon,” it’s also set in historic Florida, but this time in the early 1960s. Narrated by postal worker Dora, dust is stirred up in the sleepy, segregated small town with the arrival of Jackie, a Yankee with new ideas. Jackie’s Collier County Women’s Literary Society brings together the town outsiders, including a divorcee, an African-American teenager, a gay man and a woman who served prison time for homicide. The society does discuss books, but its success is in the questions it raises among its members who offer support and friendship. There are serious topics, but “Miss Dreamsville” is at its heart a comedy, especially in a scene when the real Miss Dreamsville is revealed at the town’s swamp buggy festival. It’s a fun novel that flies by and makes readers glad Hearth is expanding her own literary horizons.