Tag Archives: Mississippi

False Mermaid – Erin Hart

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False Mermaid is the common name of a marsh plant that may hold the key to an unsolved murder in a desolate boggy area by the Mississippi in Minnesota. The term can be stretched to cover the legend of the selkies that is still recounted in a seal harbor off the West coast of Ireland. In Erin Hart’s murder mystery, False Mermaid, Nora Gavin, an American pathologist who studies bog people, cannot let go of the horrific murder of her younger sister and her conviction that her brother-in-law is to blame.

Nora was the serious sister, following in her scientist father’s footsteps. Triona was the dreamer, fantacist, actress, a beauty in love with the magic in life. She left behind a six-year-old daughter and devastated parents—and the puzzle of who bashed her face in and stuffed her body in the trunk of her car. Nora leaves a committed lover in Dublin and decamps for Minnesota and home, after three years away, searching for closure and proof of guilt to nail Triona’s handsome husband.

Villains and plots abound. Nora reconnects with a troubled detective who keeps the cold case alive and nurtures a major crush on her. The widower announces he is about to remarry, the new bride is the  sister of his college best friend and former fiancé of Nora’s. Nora is afraid her brother-in-law plans to murder again—not entirely sure why—and this imposes a looming deadline to solve the case. She has issues with her parents, issues with her Irish boyfriend, issues with the besotted detective—just a lot of issues for this girl. Actually, nearly every character in the book has family issues–a therapist’s dream cast.

Then another body is discovered by a Cambodian refugee who escapes from his own issues by fishing along the riverbank every morning. Lot of muck in this book. A catrillion coincidences start to occur and evidence begins to pop up all over the place. This isn’t wholly credible in a cold case—clues seldom just sit around waiting for people to re-examine what they have already combed exhaustively, but whatever. Seals and legends materialize,  from Seattle to County Donegal. Mercifully there are no seals in the Mississippi.

I love selkie legends as much as anyone but a seal that somehow migrates within days from Puget Sound to the Atlantic off the Northwest Irish coast must have its own frequent flyer card. A lot in this book seems stuffed in to make it a page-turner. There are very flakey motives offered, when there are motives at all. Relationships seem oddly superficial. Not convincing. Just. Not.

The Irish and the folklore and the place names and the rugged coast could rope in a Celtic romantic like me. But the novel felt awkward and amateurish—not exactly terrible but definitely disappointing. In the end, the villains were cardboard cut-outs and I didn’t even care about the kid. Pity. I would have adored a good selkie murder mystery. Selkies are really cool.  

False Mermaid   Erin Hart | Scribner   2010

Salvage the Bones – Jesmyn Ward

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Mama died in childbirth; Daddy drinks for a living; Skeetah’s fighting pit bull is giving birth to her first litter; Esch is crazy for Manny but her appetite is off and she’s sick in the morning; there’s more dog food than people food in the house and Katrina is gathering force in the Gulf of Mexico—aimed at Bois Sauvage, Mississippi and the ramshackle property where the family lives.

Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones tells Hurricane Katrina from the other side—the poor communities and close-knit families that lived directly in destruction’s path. But the novel, while it relies heavily on Katrina for its dramatic climax, isn’t really about forces of nature. It’s about the indestructible bonds of a battered family—poor, hard-scrabble, fiercely protective of one another and loyal, working their limited options to survive and maybe live a better life.

The storyteller creates the magic in this book. Ward’s prose is luminous and original–no surpise that Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award.  The writer speaks through Esch, a young teenage girl raised in a family of boys, mostly without her mother. Esch and her siblings, including Randall, whose hopes for a basketball scholarship to college hinge on a competition game, Junior, whose birth was the death of his unattended mother, and Skeetah with his dog devotion and dreams of raising and selling premium pit bull fighters, watch each other’s backs, spar over scarce resources, more or less mind Daddy and deal with what comes along. Plenty comes along. The hurricane looms as a distant threat but dying puppies, survival shoplifiting and stealing, callous boyfriends and a very real pregnancy, a terrible accident and the heat of a Mississippi summer shift and shape their days.

The details and the speech patterns lend authenticity to the story. You might learn how to hunt for free range eggs in the weeds and trash of the yard, fry up some eggs and bologna and lick the plate because you are still hungry, tame a pit bull or loose one to fight in a backwoods clearing, survey the wiped-away landscape after a Force 5 hurricane lands on your coastal town. Salvage the Bones is a good read—full of things I know to be true about tropical hurricanes and things I didn’t know about what it is like to live in Deep South poverty with a warm and scrappy family and not much else to call your own.

Salvage the Bones: A Novel     Jesmyn Ward | Bloomsbury  2011

The Help – Kathryn Stockett

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Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter tell their own lives as a history of extreme racism in the Deep South that still manages to shock, despite our familiarity with it. Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s was a terrible place to be a maid, a dangerous place to speak your mind and a swamp of unexamined prejudice and bigotry masquerading as privilege. The Help is the interwoven story of a restless white woman who asked questions and the many black women who suffered daily degradation and still managed to keep shreds of hope alive.

Aibileen loves the children she cares for and quietly teaches them to respect themselves and see people, not skin color. Minny cooks like a dream and has a quick tongue, a wicked streak and a temper. She can’t stay employed because she is “uppity”—she speaks her mind aloud—and sometimes worse. Skeeter is too tall, hungry for more than her small-minded small town can offer and overwhelmed by a mother who manages her every move to help her attract a husband.

Kathryn Stockett is so good at voices that the three storytellers are as real as neighbors and elicit the empathy we reserve for friends. There is real peril in the simple actions they take, real consequences that can wreck or end a life in a heartbeat. Horrible things happen in the black community, from well-known news events like the murder of Medgar Evers in front of his wife and children, to unremarked cruelty like the blinding of a promising young black man for no reason at all. The white women of the local League are snooty, cliquish, unabashedly racist, fearful, ignorant and altogether repugnant.

The courage to speak up, to tell the truth, to refuse to be treated like garbage–or less than–is most often rewarded with joblessness, jail, maliciously ruined reputations, beatings, terrorizing and heartbreak. Most often but not always. Times are changing, painfully but inexorably. When the help and their anxious scribe risk putting the truth down on paper for an anonymous tell-all book about what a maid’s life is like in Jackson, no one can be sure of the consequences.

I waited a long time to pick up this book. Sometimes I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon of a book that explodes into the market. I let The Help sit on the shelf for more than a year after receiving it. But it lives up to its hype. It was funny, sad, infuriating and hopeful. The women, bad bitches and good guys, are wonderfully drawn. I should have read it sooner. Glad I finally did.

The Help   Kathryn Stockett | Amy Einhorn Books 2009