Reviewed by Phil Jason
This review also appears in Florida Weekly.
One can feel the immense joy of Amy Hill Hearth’s engagement in her first novel. It radiates through every scene and through every page. Sometimes, an exceptional writer finds an exceptional premise, and the result is a truly exceptional book. Such is the case with “Miss Dreamsville.” Inspired and inspiring, it is already a top pick of many literary groups and is sure to be an immense hit at book clubs, as was Mrs. Hearth’s first book, the best-selling “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.”
And it’s set in Naples, Florida circa 1962-63.
This was a time of small town claustrophobia for those women who were feeling the winds of cultural change but had been habituated to a narrow conformity. To be divorced, like the narrating character Dora Witherspoon – who works in the post office – is to live in exile. Divorce is disgrace. To be “suspiciously single,” like librarian, Miss Lansbury, isn’t much better. To be a young, highly literate Black woman in the still-segregated South, like Priscilla Harmon, is to be a misplaced person. To be a reluctant, outspoken Yankee transplant, like Jackie Hart, is bound to make you the subject of gossip and scorn. To be a released murder convict, like Mrs. Bailey White, does not win you friends. To be a reclusive, middle-aged poet carrying the moniker “Plain Jane” puts you out of the mainstream.
And to be an obvious, though closeted gay man, like Robbie-Lee Simpson, who runs the Sears catalogue store, is . . . Well, you know.
Jackie, a restless and bored mother of three whose husband is always away on business trips, sets the literary society idea in motion and is its guiding force. As this magnificent seven tentatively begins its exploration of books, what the members really explore is one another. Secrets are revealed. Empathy and understanding flourish. Bonds are created.
There is a great mystery demanding the town’s attention. It is not the Cuban Missile Crisis or the testing of a young Catholic (!!!) president. It is not the burning of a local Negro church by hooded figures. Rather, it is the mystery of Miss Dreamsville’s identity. Who is that woman with the sexy voice on late-night radio?
Pretty much left to themselves, the members (we can’t say “the women” because Robbie-Lee has been allowed to join) in the Literary Society make some splendid, sometimes daring, selections for discussion. One is the old favorite, “Little Women.” Another is a title by Priscilla’s favorite, Zora Neale Hurston. The group also reads Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and the notorious “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan.
The meetings anchor their lives, and the discussions open up their hearts while enlarging the novel’s scope to the world of ideas about race, gender, and identity on many levels.
For all of its authenticity about life in a small, Southern town in the early 1960s, “Miss Dreamsville” doesn’t meet the usual genre expectations of an historical novel. It is less about history and more about friendship, tolerance, and the tipping point between stasis and change. The writing is brilliant, especially the dialogue through which the characters are defined. The humor is at once gentle and uproarious. The contrast between the self-effacing Dora and the flamboyantly expressive Jackie frames a range of masterfully etched individuals.
In their intimate friendships, these seven people find the sense of home that had eluded them. Literature can do that for you.
It’s no secret to the reader that Jackie is moonlighting as Miss Dreamsville. How she manages this deceit, and how her alter ego captivates the town is among the book’s many pleasures. The culminating scene, when her identity is revealed at the town’s annual Swamp Buggy Festival, is simply glorious.
I more than merely admire this book. I love it. You will, too.
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