I became familiar with bestselling author Tom Franklin’s work through an LA Times Festival of Books author panel (link below review). His wife, Beth Ann Fennelly, is an award-winning poet. Because Tom spoke that day about their working together, I’ve been anxious to read a novel they collaborated on ever since. I was thrilled to receive The Tilted World. If this novel is an example then this couple works together beautifully.
The Tilted World has, as its backdrop, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, one of the most devastating floods ever to strike in the U.S. It’s a novel with definite genre-bending elements; a southern historical tale, an unlikely love story, a crime/detective thriller, and a heartwarming story about survival. In other words, no matter what kind of fiction you like, this one will probably work for you. And we’re giving away a copy that one of you will win!
Dixie Clay Holliver had lived in Alabama until she married Jesse Swan Holliver and moved with him to Hobnob, Mississippi. She’d fallen for him when he came to purchase furs she and her father had trapped, although they’d had to wait until she was old enough to get married. Maybe it was his odd mismatched eyes that drew her in initially or his magnetic personality. She knew she would marry him one day because he told her so.
He was certainly a charmer when he wanted to be, that was for sure. He’d sure charmed her. Would she have married him if she’d known he was a bootlegger? She’d like to think she wouldn’t have but she can’t really say. When Jacob was born, Dixie Clay couldn’t get over how perfect he was. She loved that baby more than life itself. When he died, an essential part of her died along with him. She knew there’d be no more babies for her and it changed her.
Jesse wasn’t just a bootlegger; he was a schemer and a plotter. Although he was clever and smart in many ways, he was reckless in others. After Jacob died, Dixie Clay decided that if they were going to be living out away from town and if the other women in town were going to spurn her for being married to Jesse then she would be a bootlegger too. And if she was going to get involved in the family business, it was going to be done right. She took all the energy she had put into her home and Jacob, and turned it to the business of making whiskey. Jesse’s still had been a ramshackle affair, unsanitary and its product as likely to kill someone as to get them drunk. Dixie Clay changed all of that.
It didn’t take long for word to get out about the fine product they could deliver and the orders rolled in from far and wide for their Black Lightning. Soon they had a well established little business back in the woods outside of Hobnob. Dixie Clay ran the still, i.e., the manufacturing end, and Jesse did what he did best, using his charm and cunning for sales and distribution.
The only real fly in the Prohibition back-woods liquor business were the revenuers that Herbert Hoover kept sending out. Moonshiners have always been clever at avoiding revenuers but some were more persistent than others. When Dixie Clay saw that two revenuers had handcuffed Jessie to the gallery (porch) railing of their home on April 4, 1927, she thought their little world was coming to an end. In the past Jesse had successfully bought off any local or regional officials who might have threatened their livelihood, but these revenuers evidently got the drop on him.
“Dixie Clay hadn’t aimed, hadn’t meant to fire, but the shot blasted from her gun, and the men on the gallery leaped and she leaped too. They dropped low, the bearded one scrambling behind the crates of whiskey and the other diving behind Jesse. Dixie Clay looked down shocked at the Winchester. Now they’d be in even more trouble. And she certainly wasn’t willing to shoot these revenuers to save Jesse. At times, in fact, she’d entertained the dream of shooting him herself. No, not shooting him, just getting him gone. Disappearing him, bloodlessly and at a distance….
Across the porch, the older man was gazing at his shotgun by the door, a full eight feet from where he crouched behind the whiskey.
Jesse noticed and pressed on. ‘Just one of you with a weapon at hand, and I got me four godless shiners aiming at your tenders. So drop your gun and uncuff me.’”
After a couple of marksmanship demonstrations that convinced the revenuers Dixie Clay was in fact a whole moonshiner cavalry come to Jessie’s rescue, they released Jessie. He assured Dixie Clay that he would drive them back to town and pay them off so handsomely that they’d never show their faces again, and she believed him. Unfortunately, those two revenuers disappeared instead. Did I mention that Jessie had a ruthless streak in addition to his extremely ambitious streak?
While all this is going on, it seems like it has been raining torrentially for months from Ohio to Louisiana. Everything in the area is waterlogged. The creeks are now streams and the streams are now rivers. And the biggest river in the U.S. has become a raging force, rising so high it threatens all the levees along its banks. Folks all up and down the Mississippi River are scared it could breach the levees any day.
In fact bankers down in New Orleans, to keep that city from flooding, recently petitioned to buy the town of Hobnob lock, stock and barrel. Hobnob sits on a strategic bend in the river above New Orleans. If its levee is lowered enough to allow the town and surrounding countryside to flood then New Orleans won’t flood. So now Hobnob is divided into Flooders who want to sell and Stickers who are determined to stay. The engineers who keep inspecting the Hobnob levee don’t think it has much chance of holding even if the Stickers win but the town’s people are determined to make it work.
And, of course, Commerce Secretary Hoover isn’t about to let two of his revenuers disappear in the backwoods of Mississippi without an investigation, so he sends Ham Johnson and Ted Ingersoll south to Hobnob to find out what happened to them. Oh, and then there’s the orphaned baby they find along the way to Hobnob…
“’For Christ’s sake,’ Ham said, and removed his hat and raked a hand through his bushy orange hair, the heel of his palm leaving a blotch of blood on his forehead, reminding Ingersoll of Ash Wednesday, the sign of the cross. ‘What the hell will we tell Hoover?’ Ham asked, and gazed beyond the overflowing gutter of the gallery roof to where the rain striated the world into needles.”
The truth is that a complex story like The Tilted World doesn’t lend itself well to a synopsis, even one like mine that’s just leading you up to the main storyline. Think of this story as multiple strands of different colored yarn which may not seem like much when separated but, when brought together with even-handed but strong tension, weave themselves into a beautiful garment.
My favorite character in this novel is Dixie Clay, but I also loved Ham and Ingersoll. Dixie Clay is caught in a bad situation and makes the most of it, while trying to hang onto her values as much as possible. And, yes, she does fall in love but that love is not about her marriage to Jessie. Jessie is the bad situation she’s trying to make the best of, so you might have guessed that one of my least favorite characters is Jessie.
I like a novel that moves and I hate lots of exposition. If you’re like me then you’ll love that about The Tilted World because its movement is as rapid as the Mighty Mississippi can be at flood stage. Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly have done a wonderful job of portraying not just the era and the people in that area, including Prohibition/temperance vs. moonshine, but the surreal sense of impending disaster and how people react to it. I got so caught up so quickly that I literally could not put it down! It was worth the late nights of reading. If you like historical fiction, thrillers, southern fiction, or just a heartwarming love story then this one should definitely be on your TBR (to-be-read) pile. And you could win a copy in our giveaway!
Can’t wait to read it?
The Tilted World was published on October 1, 2013, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below. Just click the button to go there to get it.
I’d love to get your comments on The Tilted World, Tom Franklin, Beth Ann Fennelly, their prior work, and/or this review. Click here to read our article about the 2011 LA Times Festival of Books author’s panel, Mysteries: Dangerous Histories, featuring Tom Franklin.
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One lucky reader will win an ARC (advance readers copy) of The Tilted World by Tom Franklin & Beth Ann Fennelly!
1) The deadline for entries is Saturday night, 10/12/2013, at 11:59pm EDST. No entries after that date/time will be eligible.
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