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Review: Connie May Fowler's 'Million Fragile Bones' a memoir of a natural paradise found and lost

Published Apr. 13, 2017

There are two reasons for Connie May Fowler's new memoir to be published next week, one hopeful, one heartbreaking.

One is that April 22 will be the 47th annual Earth Day. Most of A Million Fragile Bones is Fowler's paean to the beauty and healing powers of nature, particularly her own little piece of it on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico.

The second is that April 20 is the seventh anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, which led to a massive, months-long spill of millions of gallons of oil that wreaked untold damage on the gulf — and on Fowler's home, as she recounts in the latter part of this memoir.

Fowler, who spent part of her childhood in Tampa and graduated from the University of Tampa, is best known for her novels, which include Sugar Cage, Before Women Had Wings and How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly. She has also published poetry and nonfiction and an earlier memoir, When Katie Wakes, which focused on the cycle of domestic violence in her family.

Bones, too, begins with her family, harking back to Fowler's earliest childhood in St. Augustine. Her parents fought ferociously, but she adored her father and was shattered when he died suddenly when she was 6 years old.

Years later, still trying to heal from that emotional wound as well as the trauma of being raised by her alcoholic, mentally ill and abusive mother, Fowler happens upon what she calls her "shack," on a barrier island south of Tallahassee called Alligator Point. The "wind-worn home without a stitch of plastic or paint," built during World War II as part of a military base, sits between bay and gulf.

Her father loved the sea, and she feels close to him there. She buys the place and falls into the rhythm of life there, in a tiny village where the nonhuman inhabitants — a pair of "lovebird" herons that return to the same nesting spot year after year, the curious dolphins that pace her when she walks along the beach, a birdseed-loving bear who is nicknamed "Bond" after wildlife agents tag his ear with the number 007 — are more interesting than most of the human ones.

On the beach one day, a monarch butterfly lands on Fowler's arm, then another and another, until she's wearing an orange-and-black mantle of them. Inspired by that miraculous visitation, she researches the delicate creatures and marvels at their incredible migrations, from the Yucatan in Mexico all the way to Canada.

She tends her garden and her pack of beloved dogs. She learns to cope with hurricanes and floods and other natural phenomena, and it eases her grief: "This place teaches me a single lesson over and over: Loss is not a cold, lightless grave. It is life."

There are gains as well as losses. The shack is where she gets a mysterious phone call about Before Women Had Wings, a voice saying, "This is a friend of Bird's," the book's main character. It's Oprah Winfrey, wanting to make a movie. And the shack is where romance blooms with Bill Hinson, the kind man who becomes Fowler's second husband.

She had lived at Alligator Point for 16 years when news came of the Macondo Prospect well explosion. At first her fears are tempered by a literary reaction: "Who had the bright idea, I wonder, to name a deep-water well after Gabriel Garcia Marquez's ill fated village in A Hundred Years of Solitude? A village that was perhaps merely a mirage? A mythical land wiped off the face of the earth, condemned in its solitude?"

But as the scope of the disaster becomes clear, she's infuriated and frightened. "It's as if BP, the government, and the oil are all separate parts of the same Boogey Man, an omniscient and all-powerful monster adept at smoke and mirrors, hazing and gas-lighting, lies and half-lies, ineptitude and ass-covering, as a disaster of epic proportions swirls through the Gulf."

And lands right on her doorstep. As BP sprays dispersant and then sets fire to the oil, Fowler's shack is covered, inside and out, with fine soot; her mouth fills with ropey mucus that sometimes makes it difficult for her to speak. The writing conferences she leads in Cedar Key, a main source of income, end up canceled because writers fear being near the oil spill. And her rage and grief grow.

Eventually, the idyll of Alligator Point ends. Fowler and her husband will retreat, first back to St. Augustine and then, like those enduring monarch butterflies, to Yucatan. But A Million Fragile Bones stands as testament to the devastation caused by the greed and irresponsibility that lead to environmental disasters, to all creatures, human and otherwise.

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

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