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Remembering Patrick Smith, author of beloved Florida novel, 'A Land Remembered'

Born in Mississippi, a former Studebaker salesman, Patrick Smith sat down at his Merritt Island dining room table three decades ago and on his trusty manual typewriter banged out a novel that many Floridians regard with the affection usually reserved for the family Bible.

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Surrounded by family, the author of A Land Remembered died Sunday from complications of pneumonia at Vitas Hospice in Brevard County. A tough old cob who spoke in a magnolia-tinged accent, he was 86.

His iconic novel tells the story of three generations of a feisty Florida ranching family between 1858 and 1968. Action packed, it covers the Civil War, Emancipation and Seminole uprisings. Readers, who include many people who typically don't read books, race through pages as Tobias MacIvey and family cope with snakes, alligators, bears, wolves, mosquitoes, freezes, hurricanes and, later, rapacious developers.

Many Florida authors are better known, yet for more than a decade A Land Remembered has edged out Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling and Carl Hiaasen's Tourist Season in Florida Monthly magazine's annual reader's poll of favorite books. In 2012, the state's Humanities Council gave Mr. Smith its Florida Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing. In June, Gov. Rick Scott presented him with a Great Floridian award.

Mr. Smith's book, Gulf Coast University English professor Joe Wisdom once said, "should be handed out with orange juice at welcome stations to anyone who crosses the state line.''

A Land Remembered, which was rejected by major publishers, was put into print by Sarasota's tiny Pineapple Press and has sold more than 200,000 copies since 1984. It's often read in Florida elementary, middle and high schools.

"He was our James Michener,'' Orlando novelist Bob Morris said on Monday. "He was no literary stylist, but a marvelous storyteller.''

Mr. Smith told his gripping story using simple, declarative sentences. "Emma saw Tobias go down and become engulfed in blackness,'' he wrote about a cattle drive in Chapter 19. "She screamed at Frog, 'What's happening out there? What is it?' Frog slapped his arms and legs, and then he said, 'It's skeeters, Miz Emma! Solid skeeters.' "

Tobias, Emma and friends, black, white and Seminoles, all tended to be simple, honorable folks who didn't cheat their neighbors or even cuss. Above all, despite the skeeters, they loved Florida.

"He wrote with a tremendous sense of place,'' said T. Allan Smith (no relation) who operated the MicklerSmith Florida Book Traders store for years in St. Petersburg. "When people came in and wanted one book that would introduce them to the state, A Land Remembered was the one I pointed them to.''

Like many of his favorite Florida authors, Patrick Smith was born elsewhere. At the University of Mississippi, where he once saw William Faulkner walk across the campus, Mr. Smith studied Rawlings and The Yearling to earn his master's. After graduation he farmed and sold cars and wrote at night. He was 23 when his first novel, A River Home, came out. He moved to Florida after a civil rights era novel, The Beginning, proved unpopular in Mississippi.

Starting in 1966, he toiled as spokesman for Brevard Community College during the day. In 1980, when he was still working for the college, he began researching A Land Remembered and spent two years interviewing ranchers. He devoted the next two years writing the novel after supper at his dining room table while his wife, Iris, and children Rick and Jane watched television with the volume turned low.

His novel proved to be an immediate hit with old-time Floridians especially. Ranchers approached him at signings to thank him for writing a book about their families. "If they want to believe it,'' he once said, "that's fine with me.'' He heard from fans who had read the novel dozens of times and at least once from someone who had satisfied her daddy's wishes by reading him A Land Remembered as he lay dying.

Known for a notoriously stubborn nature, Mr. Smith spent time in and out of hospitals and hospices for the last half-dozen years. He suffered from emphysema, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and broke his leg, arm and hip in a fall, leaving him bedridden. Somehow he would rise again from his deathbed. "You can never count Daddy out,'' daughter Jane liked to tell people.

On Christmas, he developed pneumonia. X-rays also revealed a spot on his lungs that was probably cancer. Weak, gasping for breath, he ended up once again at hospice. At his bedside on Sunday were Jane, son Rick and Iris, his wife of 67 years.

"He just drifted away,'' Rick said.

Excerpt from 'A Land Remembered,'

Chapter 2, 'La Florida.'

Gradually (Tobias) made chairs from sturdy oak and wove cane bottoms onto them, and he fashioned a table from cypress. He trapped enough raccoons to trade their furs for a coal oil lamp so they could have light at night. Brooms were made from sage straw, soap from animal fat and lye; meat was preserved by smoking, and what few vegetables they did harvest were canned or dried for the winter. Emma learned to make flour from cattail roots and they used wild honey as a substitute for sugar. What they all missed most were milk and butter, and there was no substitute for them. He vowed that someday he would own another milk cow, and this time he would protect her better.

The one thing Tobias feared most was the abundance of predators that roamed the land: bears, panthers, and wolves. Nothing was safe from them, and he dared not go into the woods without the shotgun. Darkness was when the predators roamed freely, and he kept the oxen locked inside the small barn each night, even during the hottest part of summer.

Remembering Patrick Smith, author of beloved Florida novel, 'A Land Remembered' 01/27/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 29, 2014 6:00pm]
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