Monday, January 26, 2015

A Land Remembered, by Patrick Smith: Historical fiction at its best

This is another in a series of book reviews from books I have recently read.

I used to read a lot of historical fiction, but lost the taste for it a few years back. I still love Janice Holt Giles (40 Acres and Mule, The Believers, Hannah Fowler), not only because she is an excellent writer, but because she is a Kentucky writer. But the book that has gotten me interested once again in historical fiction is a book about the history of another state than my own.

Last August I was trying to figure out what short story I was going to use at St. John's Academy, a Florida school at which I do teacher training every year. Interestingly, every year, the discussion of a short story is what the teachers and staff enjoy the most. For several years, we have read stories from Kentucky authors that I like, but I decided I wanted to try to see about Florida writers and use something from a native author.

After a little literary detective work, it became clear to me that, in terms of litarary stature, Marjorie Kinan Rawlings ruled Florida's authorial roost. Her most famous book, of course, is The Yearling. I read several of her short stories, some very good, one particularly excellent. But the excellent one suffers from the vicissitudes of racial politics, and even though its point is entirely sympathetic to the plight of Blacks, its language is no longer acceptable. It's a shame.

I eventually went back to safe territory—to a short story from a Kentucky author that I knew well. But in the process of looking for Florida writers, I stumbled upon the book A Land Remembered, by Patrick Smith. The accolades were astounding. On Amazon, for example, it has an average four and a half star rating from almost 700 readers. I don't always trust popular reviews like this, but in this case, they were dead on.

My wife and I actually listed to the audio version of this book on a trip to the Midwest in 2013 read by George Guida, one of the best readers going. You don't have to even be interested in the history of Florida. I never was. This is just a great story.

The book tells the story of Tobias MacIvey and his wife, who arrive in Florida in 1858—and of the two generations that follow him. He is a "cracker" from Georgia who with his wife Emma, and through hard work and determination, strikes it rich in the cattle business. The story of the first generation is the most interesting part of the book, and you are swept into the hardscrabble lives of these people with a vengeance.

Good historical fiction is able to strike a balance between the story it tells and its historical relevance. It is easy for a story that clearly is intended to tell the story of a state to seem contrived by trying to be representative of the states people and their history. But this story never feels contrived. The hurricane scene and the mosquito scene that follows; the visit by the Confederate deserters; the cattle ruslters, and the mysterious Indian man, and the apply custard forest will stay with you forever. At every turn it is utterly convincing—even compelling. You forget that you are being told the story of a state, so involved are you in the story of the compelling characters.

The differences between the three generations of MacIveys tell a story of their own. There is a grit and fortitude in the character of the first generation that diminishes in the second, and that diminishes still further in the third, when we are left with Solomon MacIvey, a rich, unmarried and childless landholder whose corporate entities dot the modern Florida landscape, but who, in his old age and sickness is unmarried and childless, the last of the now sterile MacIvey line.

MacIvey is on his way to the original house his grandfather has built, there to die, but on the way, he stops in to see his Indian half-brother, who lives is a small village in the scrub, his people having been moved from their native home. They had grown up together, and Solomon has it in his mind that they can die together, but his half-brother must stay with his people.

Solomon's last act is a speech to a professional group that wants to honor him for his contributions to the state. But he knows now what his contributions to the state really are. He has betrayed his grandfather by helping to permanently destroy the very things that he had loved: the forests and the native people. He uses the occasion of his speech to bitterly criticize the assembled leaders for giving him their award—and for their own complicity in these crimes.

When I finished the story, it seemed to me that the characters of the first generation were more real than the later characters—and then I realized that that was part of the point. It wasn't a weakness by the author in telling the story that Tobias and Emma had a substance to them that his descendants did not: That's actually the way it was. The first generation of Floridians was more real: They had a substance to their characters that their children and grandchildren were in the process of losing as they discarded their pioneer virtues and made way for their roads and air conditioned beach houses.

Solomon has come to terms with his and his generation's greed, and he has put the land his father had bequeathed to him in trust so that it might be protected for future generations. And yet at the end of the story, as much as you cheer him on as he lectures his colleagues and as much as he has done what he could at the end of his life to make up for his own greed, there an abiding sense of sorrow at what has been irretrievably lost, a sorry Solomon himself shares.

It's a stunning and heartbreaking story everyone should read.

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