In 1927, the U.S. experienced the most destructive flood in its history. It rained endlessly; on April 15, from 6-15 inches of rain fell over several hundred square miles all along the Mississippi, and the winds were so fierce they blew off roofs and broke windows. The Mississippi River was carrying in excess of three million cubic feet of water each second, expanding to almost 100 miles across, and the levees could not take the pressure. The river overflowed in eleven states from Illinois to Louisiana. According to John Barry, author of the gripping account The Great Flood of 1927 and How It Changed American History, the resulting floods destroyed the homes of almost one percent of the entire population of the U.S.!
Before the flood, levee guards were scattered across the Mississippi plains. Many of the levees were built by “free” blacks held at gunpoint. The blacks were also left stranded during the flood and starved in the refugee camps that dotted the plains after the flood. Whites, however, had access to rescue boats and Red Cross supplies. As a result of this treatment and loss of land and housing, tens of thousands of blacks moved northward, contributing to the so-called Great Migration.
Franklin and Fennelly set their story in this volatile time and place, focusing on a pair of federal prohibition enforcement agents (“revenuers” or “prohis”) who are investigating bootlegging in fictional Hobnob Landing. [As the authors state in a Note prior to the story, they drew their inspiration from what happened in Mounds Landing near Greenville, Mississippi, where the levee collapsed releasing a wall of water one hundred feet high, flattening almost a million homes, and where over 330,000 people had to be rescued from trees and rooftops.]
Revenuers Ted Ingersoll and Ham Johnson are introduced to the area by the discovery of 3 dead bodies and a living baby on the floor of the general store on their way to Hobnob. The orphanage can’t take the baby, so a local woman recommends Ingersoll give the child to Dixie Clay Holliver, a 22-year-old still mourning the loss of her own baby two years prior. Unbeknownst to Ingersoll, Dixie Clay is a bootlegger – the biggest in town – doing the work for her very no good husband Jesse, who takes the money she makes with her hard labor to spend it on fancy clothes and prostitutes.
Dixie Clay is desperate for love, and she takes that baby and names him William Clay Lucius Holliver. Ingersoll can’t stop thinking about her and the baby, especially after finding out who her husband is. When he hears the baby is sick, he goes to help, since Jesse is off sleeping with other women, and wouldn’t help in any event. They become close, but when Ingersoll tells her she has to stop bootlegging, she gets defensive and suspicious, and assumes Jesse has bribed him and now he just wants even more money. They part acrimoniously, but Jesse finds out that Ingersoll had been there.
He accuses Dixie Clay of being a whore, beats her, and leaves her for dead when the levee breaks.
Out of this morass of malevolence and cruelty from both man and nature, it will take more than one miracle for anything good to result.
Discussion: Franklin is a great atmospheric writer, and his wife is an award-winning poet. The combination results in some beautiful passages, like this one, in which Dixie Clay talks about her dreams:
“She wanted to bake scratch cakes and pick blackberries and can jam and when her boy came hungry from school she’d take bread from the oven and he could tear off a steaming feathery hunk and give it a fat swath of blackberry. Ripe June in his red October mouth.”
Or this beautiful description of the night sky:
“The rain had stopped and Ingersoll planted a Y-shaped stick in the ground and hung his shirt to dry. … In a few more moments it was too dark to see, clouds erasing the stories told by the constellations, just a few scattered points of light, below them the currents sometimes glinting where they knifed open the reflection of a star.”
Evaluation: This haunting, gritty Faulknerian story is drenched in evil and greed. But it also, in the characters of Ingersoll and Dixie Clay, provides two unforgettable beacons of light in the darkness and despair. In eloquent and evocative prose, Franklin and Fennelly plumb the depths of human experience, and then show us how boundless grief can be redeemed through hope and love.
Jim’s Reaction: The book is very well written, but I thought it merited 4, not 4.5 stars. The story is well constructed, but in my opinion the conclusion relies too much on very improbable coincidences [in Greenville] to bring about a satisfactory denouement. Nevertheless, like Jill, I definitely found it to be a page turner.
Published by William Morrow, and imprint of HarperCollins, 2013