Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
There are ladies with stories to tell, maiden ladies, of course, but also ladies with worldly experience, oral histories for sure, and in the south the stories are most fun when they rub against one another, meandering down and along rivulets until collecting in a main stream.
I recall, for example, a time when I was giving a reading at what was then called The College of the Ozarks, a little Presbyterian college in Arkansas. The chaplain invited me to come along on his Sunday circuit up and into the Ozark mountains. We stopped for lunch at a double-wide, the home of the Blackburn sisters who were of an indeterminate elderly age. My chaplain friend cautioned me first about the pork chops and okra and then cautioned me again about not interrupting the sisters. If I did, he noted, they would have to start the narrative all over and we would be there forever.
They were maiden ladies, those sisters living together in that double-wide, and likely a little overwhelmed by the bigger world outside those Ozark Mountains and their double-wide. But there was not a name or date or detail they could not remember over the course of their longevity, and since they never married they never had husbands or children to worry them into earlier graves.
I mention this because the women in Amy Hill Hearth’s Miss Dreamsville enjoy one another’s company but also, as the saying goes, “have each other’s back.”
The place is Florida, near Naples, and the time is 1962; Florida is in the stages of rapid development. Darryl Norwood is the ex-husband of narrator Dora Witherspoon. Darryl is planning a large development (with the aid of northern financing) along a tidal river where Dolores Simpson (a former stripper) lives in a fishing shack and holds conversation with a nesting heron.
The whole cast of this made-for-the-movies novel also includes a postmistress, a librarian, a convicted elderly grand-dame murderer, a northern transplant, a lone African-American girl and her child, and a “sweet” man, Dolores Simpson’s theatrical son.
These misfit, offbeat characters, all members of what is known as the “Women’s Literary Society,” are likable and endearing and the novel’s pages provide a charming snapshot of what life in that time period was like in a tiny Florida town. They are misfits less in the Flannery way of thinking and more in their refusal to submit to what the town fathers would call Florida progress. There is therefore an authenticity to the book. There are also social issues that could be realistically searing; they’re injected into the story but are lightly treaded and thus are less conflicting.
The novel’s northern transplant is Jackie Hart—beautiful, a redhead, intelligent and of course opinionated—who manages to offend just about everyone with her northern manners which of course stand out glaringly. It’s not difficult to imagine what might happen if a flirty, charming, but restless Boston northerner appears in small Florida Collier County in 1962. She’s, oh, an early feminist and likely makes most southern small town men uncomfortable.
There’s a playful seriousness to the story, however, and a love for language that’s authentically southern. It’s a laudable book, one in which the ladies have their say and in their gritty way win out in the end, an end precious, lightly comic, and heart-warming.
The comic quirkiness is what makes the book “made-for-the-moves.” Chapters and scenes appear in a manner made for easy story-boarding. In other words, one can easily “picture” the book cinematically even as it touches lightly on 1962 social and cultural issues. The book does not lack seriousness; the light comedy never digresses into slapstick. Like the fiction in the book itself, such a movie from such a book would be gentle and enjoyable. Bus rides south across the landscape from Jackson, Mississippi, to pre-touristy then backwater Naples create not only a time-scape for this “made-for-the-movies” novel but the landscape itself becomes a secondary character and not just backdrop.
It’s a book club book, of course, which requires entertainment, as does most summer reading. And most book club discussions likely center on the novel’s “feel-good” quality. On scale, it’s light weight; if a reader wishes something more heavy, let me suggest another Florida writer, Zora Neale Hurston and her Their Eyes Were Watching God.