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Laura Lee Smith's 'The Ice House' shields disaster, conflict with humor, warmth

Laura Lee Smith Festival of Reading author mugs,
Laura Lee Smith Festival of Reading author mugs,
Published Nov. 2, 2017

y Colette Bancroft

Johnny MacKinnon already has too much on his plate.

The icemaking plant he and his wife, Pauline, own and operate is being investigated after the rupture of an ammonia tank. Johnny's grown son, Corran, is struggling with heroin addiction, and Johnny's long marriage, though solid, is showing a few frays. It's no wonder the MacKinnons' dog, an elderly dachshund named General San Jose, seems worried all the time.

Then Johnny collapses at work, and the diagnosis is a growth — probably benign but maybe not — in his brain. What next, a plague of frogs?

Why, yes.

All that and more afflicts the MacKinnons in Laura Lee Smith's new book, The Ice House, yet this novel fairly beams with humor and warmth. Smith makes us feel affection for even her most hapless characters, and surprises us with the turns their lives take.

This is Smith's second novel, after her auspicious 2013 debut, Heart of Palm. She lives in northeast Florida, and both books are enriched by her area knowledge.

The Ice House is set in Jacksonville, where the MacKinnons run the Bold City Ice Plant, inherited from Pauline's father, Packy Knight. Pauline has deep roots in north Florida, not all of them pleasant: "As a young man, Packy had been one of a mob of whites who marauded the streets of downtown Jacksonville on a summer day in 1960, wielding ax handles to beat bloody a group of blacks who had staged a sit-in at the lunch counter at W.T. Grant to protest segregation." Packy has dementia now, but his daughter can't forget.

Johnny is an outsider, an immigrant from Scotland who arrived, dead broke, after the collapse of his first marriage. He fell in love at the first sound of Pauline's accent, and they've been partners ever since, personally and professionally. Pauline and Johnny never had kids, but she was happy being a stepmother to Corran, who was a lovable boy — until he grew up and they started spending more than they had to send him to drug rehab programs. The last straw for Johnny occurred when Corran came for a visit and started using, and Pauline's wedding ring disappeared. Corran denied stealing it, but Johnny hasn't spoken to him since.

Now Corran is clean, but he's also a single father to an infant daughter, Lucy, trying to raise her in a rough, remote Scottish town. After Johnny is diagnosed and scheduled for brain surgery, he suddenly decides to go meet his granddaughter, without consulting Corran or Pauline.

Johnny can't drive with the possibility of seizures, so (in the midst of that plague of frogs) he enlists as his helper Chemal, the goofy teenage son of his neighbors. Chemal worships KISS, though he wasn't even born in the band's heyday, and he dresses for Scottish weather by "layering as many sweatshirts and sweaters as he could under his KISS Army jacket. He looked like a heavy metal marshmallow." Yet Chemal will prove to have unexpected resources.

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Pauline, meanwhile, is at home coping with the OSHA investigation and a talkative young lawyer who is combing through the ice house's records. She has the help of two longtime employees, utterly trustworthy Roy and wisecracking Claire, but both of them are struggling with single parenthood as well.

Smith weaves their stories expertly, moving from Jacksonville to Scotland and back, from another disaster to a laugh-out-loud moment. Her tenderness toward her characters and subtle understanding of class differences in American society are reminiscent of such novelists as Richard Russo and Jennifer Egan, but this heartbreaking, heartwarming novel is an original.

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

The Ice House

By Laura Lee Smith

Grove Press, 448 pages, $25

Times Festival of Reading

Laura Lee Smith will be a featured author at the 2017 Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 11 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She will speak at 1 p.m. in the Poynter Institute Haiman Amphitheater.