Back in 1963, Naples was just a tiny Florida town, populated by a few hundred people and swelling by a few hundred more during tourist season. Its flossy restaurants, posh resorts, sprawling suburbs and billionaires' mansions were decades in the future.
How much trouble could a bunch of book club ladies get into in a sleepy town like that? As you'll find in Amy Hill Hearth's Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County, plenty of it.
Hearth, a University of Tampa graduate who now lives near New York City, is the author of several nonfiction books. One of them, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, about siblings who were civil rights pioneers, became a bestseller, then a Broadway play and television movie. Her new book is a sequel to her first novel, Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society, a comic tale about a group of small-town misfits who end up making national news.
This one picks up about a year after the first novel ended. Dora Witherspoon, who narrates both books, has been gone from her hometown of Naples since the events of the first book, living in Jackson, Miss., while trying to track down information about her late mother's early life — and trying to figure out who her father, whom she never met, really was.
Dora is making rather remarkable progress on that quest, but we won't find out about that until later. As the book begins, Dora gets an alarming telegram, all the more so given that by the early 1960s telegrams were a rarity reserved for the gravest news.
All this one says is "Big trouble. Come home now." An enigmatic message — especially since it was sent by someone Dora hardly knows, a woman named Dolores Simpson.
Dolores comes from an old Collier County family, who threw her out years ago after she became pregnant at age 15. She gave her baby up for adoption and ended up working as a stripper in the nearest evil big city: Tampa. When she got pregnant again seven years later, she decided to come home and raise her child alone, moving into her grandfather's abandoned fishing shack on the edge of the Everglades and making a living hunting alligators, which, she figures, "couldn't be any harder or more dangerous than working in some old strip club. In fact, it might be easier."
Under his mother's rough-edged but loving care, Dolores' baby grew up to be Robbie-Lee Simpson, one of the members of the book club at the core of the first novel. He has since moved to New York to pursue a theatrical career, so Dolores is calling on Dora for help, even though Dora is scared half to death of her.
The big trouble is Dora's ex-husband, Darryl Norwood. He has gone beyond just being annoying: He has announced plans to build a gigantic suburban development on land near Naples that includes Gun Rack Village (where Dolores' shack is) as well as a town called the Negro Settlement, the scattered homes of Seminoles and many acres of pristine Everglades. The capper: He's calling it Dreamsville.
That name is guaranteed to incense the woman known as Miss Dreamsville, the glamorous, outspoken Jackie Hart. She was transplanted to Naples from Boston by her husband's job as an airline pilot; in this book he's busy establishing a new Florida-based airline on the strength of rumors about some big idea of Walt Disney's. Jackie founded the book club and, as a mysterious radio host called Miss Dreamsville, stirred up the whole town in the first book.
Jackie is off the radio but has a new job as a newspaper columnist, which comes in handy when she teams up with Dora and the other book club members to fight Darryl's nefarious plans. Laconic magazine writer Plain Jane is on board, as is Mrs. Bailey White, scion of a wealthy local family who did a long prison term for murdering her husband (and seems not too sorry about it). The club's youngest member, Priscilla, is now a student at Bethune-Cookman College, coming home for occasional visits with her baby daughter, Dream, who is being raised by Plain Jane, Jackie and Mrs. Bailey White.
As the book club swings into action to thwart Darryl, mysteries multiply: Who is financing his project? Who is vandalizing the billboards for Dreamsville? Will the fearsome ghost called Seminole Joe arise from the swamps to take his revenge (with an ax, according to the whispered stories) for the despoilment of his old hunting grounds? And when will Dora spill the story of her background — and what other bombshells will she discover about her family?
Hearth has a deft way with dialogue, capturing Southern rhythms subtly without resorting to clumsy dialect writing. She also finds the comedy (and occasionally the danger) in gossip, that power source of small-town society. Judging by Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County, Naples was a lot sweeter, and a lot more fun, back in 1963.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.