“Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County,” by Amy Hill Hearth

Amy Hill Hearth

Amy Hill Hearth

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

This review originally appeared in Florida Weekly. It is reprinted here with the permission of Florida Weekly.

This sequel to Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society (2012) should satisfy those who filled the many book club appearances through which the earlier title was effectively marketed. It inches forward a year or so into the mid-1960s and collects most of the same oddball characters whose engaging interactions in the literary society made for enjoyable social comedy.

Naples is still portrayed as a sleepy little Southwest Florida town, but this time out its attractions are understood as a lure to investors and a threat to those who like its quiet pace and special brand of natural beauty.

Narrator Dora Witherspoon, who had left Naples on a search to find her roots in Jackson, Mississippi, finds herself brought home to help counter the effort of her ex-husband, Darryl Norwood. With out-of- state backing (in itself a cultural betrayal), Norwood is planning to build a large development along a tidal river. The name he chooses for it, “Dreamsville,” is another betrayal, as it steals the name invented by a prominent Naples character for her popular radio show. That woman certainly doesn’t want to appear connected with such a project.

The name “Miss Dreamsville” is the invention of Jackie Hart, a brash New England transplant who during her few years in Naples has invigorated the womenfolk, battering down the door of their traditional deference, if not subservience, to men. She breathes the fresh air of the civil rights and women’s rights movements into a remote pocket of Southern resistance. She makes a handful of close friends, but quite a few enemies as well. Jackie is change.

So is Darryl’s Dreamsville.

From our perch in time, we know that the decades of Darryls have won, yet to see the battle brewing in 1964 is quite exciting. Once the ladies begin their campaign to block Dreamsville, they discover that one of them might be the actual property owner of the land that Darryl is planning to develop. Proving the matter depends on the skills and industry of their fledgling lawyer, who seems to be outgunned by the team that Darryl’s backers can afford to hire. The pros and cons of development are one thing; the question of ownership is quite another.

The effort re-energizes the Collier County Women’s Literary Society, which had been rather dormant for a while. What these individualists have in common, ironically, is their sense of community and the need to belong.

One of the group’s enterprises, launched in the first novel, was to send their youngest member to college and to take care of her infant child. Their concern for this bright, motivated young Black woman in a South still permeated with racism demonstrates their capacity to transform hope into action. Because the development plan threatens her Black community, Priscilla returns from Bethune-Cookman College for a brief visit. Her interaction with the older women is inspiring.

Also returning is Robbie-Lee, son of reclusive Dolores Simpson. After gaining an unsavory reputation in Tampa, Dolores had long ago returned to the Naples of her early years, with her infant son, living for a long time in a fishing shack once owned by her grandfather.

Her son had been a sort of unofficial member of the women’s group, and through him Dolores had met several of the members. Now Bobbie-Lee comes home from New York City to join the effort of thwarting the Dreamsville scheme.

Ms. Hearth’s new novel and its prequel both explore, with sensitivity and appropriate humor, the meaning of home, belonging, and community. Given that the women’s group members are strongly individualistic, it may seem odd that they find common purposes and work effectively together as a significant force. However, the author understands the complex interplay between the forces of self-realization and self-expression on the one hand and the nourishing security of true fellowship on the other.

Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County is not only a delightful diversion, but it is also a lively and wise deliberation on the dynamics of friendship, change, and self-realization. The book is also a charming representation of Collier County’s 1960s cultural history.

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