Amy Hill Hearth's first novel is a charming and funny snapshot of life in a tiny Florida town in 1962. It's also a sweet-tart reminder that those good old days weren't so good for everybody.
Hill Hearth knows Florida; she graduated from the University of Tampa and worked as a reporter at the Daytona Beach News-Journal. Her first book, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, about civil rights pioneers whose father was born in slavery, was a bestseller that became a Broadway play and a television movie. She has written or co-authored six other nonfiction books, but Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society is her first novel, and a fine debut. Even it has a basis in fact: Hill Hearth based it on her late mother-in-law, Jacqueline Hearth.
The book opens with the arrival in Naples, Fla., of Jackie Hart. Her husband, Ted, has been hired as a business manager by one of the county's most powerful men, and the Harts — Jackie, Ted and their three kids — have moved down from the exotic environs of Boston.
Jackie makes her entrance as the novel opens: "She was wearing an enormous straw hat and a pair of sunglasses that made her look like she'd just left a party hosted by Sophia Loren on the French Riviera. Her skin was very white, as if she'd never encountered a single ray of sun, and her hair, peeking out from under her hat, was what my mama would have called 'the barn's on fire' red." For someone picking up her mail at the post office — including the only subscription to Vogue the town has ever seen — Jackie radiates unfamiliar glamor and confidence.
The narrator of Miss Dreamsville is Dora Witherspoon, a post office employee, Naples native and sad-sack 30-year-old divorcee with the unfortunate nickname of "the Turtle Lady," thanks to her proclivity for rescuing injured turtles: "I can't say I'm partial to it, but here in the South, nicknames stick like bottomland mud."
(If Dora's wry voice and her job make you recall Eudora Welty's little masterpiece of a short story Why I Live at the P.O., rest assured that's intentional, and that other connections to Welty will pop up in Miss Dreamsville.)
In 1962, Naples had a population of about 800, swelling to 1,200 in winter tourist season, and was "a redneck town and proud of it." It's a place where not much but good behavior is expected of a middle-class white housewife like Jackie, even if she is a Yankee carpetbagger. But Jackie is nothing anyone expected.
Practically the minute she meets Dora, she recruits her for the Collier County Women's Literary Society, which she is founding at the local library. Before long, Jackie gets something unheard of for a married woman: a job, as a copy editor at the local newspaper. And then she gets another one, although almost no one knows she has it. As Miss Dreamsville, the sexy announcer of a late-night radio show, she keeps her identity a secret, even as the show becomes a hit that keeps teenage boys and grown men up way past their bedtimes.
The book club, though, is where Dora gets to know Jackie, as well as the crew of misfits Jackie recruits. There's Miss Lansbury, the raven-haired librarian, grudgingly forgiven her unmarried status because she's a "career gal." She picks the group's first book: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
Then there is a reticent widow, a recent arrival in Naples, who goes by the name "Plain Jane" and suggests Sylvia Plath's poetry. (Like Carson and almost every other author the club reads, Plath is an unknown to most of the members.) The club's scariest member is the elderly, irascible Mrs. Bailey White, recently released from a long prison term for killing her husband and interested in mysteries about missing persons.
Despite its name, the club has one male member. Robbie-Lee Simpson is a clerk at the town's Sears order center who has turned his job into a de facto decorating business. He may be Naples' only known (at least to Dora) homosexual, but he's beloved by its women for his discerning eye and his sweet nature. From its men, he gets less hassle than one might expect, thanks mainly to his mother, a former Tampa stripper turned hard-bitten alligator hunter after a disastrous breast-implant mishap.
But the most shocking addition to the book club is Priscilla Harmon, a young black woman who has to work around the town's Negro curfew to attend. She comes to the first meeting in her maid's uniform and is so reflexively deferential to white people she can barely bring herself to speak — but eventually proposes a book no one else has heard of, even though it was set just a few counties away: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Their reading choices change each of the club's members — Jackie herself is so riveted by The Feminine Mystique she reads it straight through, stopping only to pour another scotch and light another cigarette — and they're also changed by their friendships with each other. Jackie, with her restless, determined personality, may be the center, but all of them have secrets to reveal.
How a little old book club can lead to an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan, a college scholarship for an unlikely recipient, a scandalous confrontation at the Swamp Buggy Festival and more is all part of the story that cruises along as smoothly as Jackie's banana-yellow Buick LeSabre convertible in Miss Dreamsville.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.