5/10/2015—BOOK REVIEW: THE TILTED WORLD BY TOM FRANKLIN AND BETH ANN FENNELLY (ONE OF THE BEST HISTORICAL NOVELS I’VE EVER READ)
In March 1927, after months of nearly nonstop rainfall, a levee on the Mississippi River near Greenville, Mississippi, collapsed with more than double the water volume of Niagara Falls. The deluge, combined with flooding from additional breaks in the levee system, covered 27,000 square miles in 10 states up to a depth of 30 feet. Authorities have called it the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States. And yet many people have never heard of it. In their gripping new novel The Tilted World, Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly have righted that omission and brought the horrors and heroism of the flood to life.
The Tilted World tells the story of fictional characters Dixie Clay Holliver and Ted Ingersoll. Dixie Clay is a bootlegger who cooks her moonshine hidden in the hills outside the fictional town of Hobnob, Mississippi. She got into the bootlegging business through her husband, Jesse, a dashing rogue who now does all the selling (and attendant public relations work with the ladies) of the product while Dixie Clay does the cooking.
Ingersoll is a federal revenue agent sent to Hobnob to investigate the recent disappearance of two other agents. He meets Dixie Clay, unaware of her profession, because he wants to find a home for an infant whose parents were murdered in a store robbery. A resident of Hobnob suggests that Dixie Clay, whose son died when he was three months old, would give the baby a good home.
After leaving the baby with Dixie Clay, Ingersoll goes on about his business of finding the missing agents while masquerading as a levee engineer, but his path is destined to cross Dixie Clay’s again when he and his partner, Ham, learn that Jesse’s the go-to man for whiskey in the region. And Jesse learns Ingersoll is the man who gave his wife a baby.
As the rain continues and would-be farmers and millers become sandbaggers raising the height of the levees, nerves made already tense by the situation are strained farther by the news that 50 pounds of dynamite have been stolen from the military base in Louisiana. Guards walk the levees at night looking for saboteurs, but everyone still fears what that much dynamite could do to the levees. And there are people who would do it. Not long before Ingersoll arrives, Hobnob turned down an offer of $50,000 from New Orleans bankers to flood their town and spare the city. Some townspeople wanted to take the money.
Containing human desires can be as hard as containing a river. While Ingersoll is trying to understand why he is attracted to Dixie Clay, his professional enemy, tension between the “flooders” and the “stickers” grows. And the river swells. And then chaos erupts, giving rise to one of the best fight-for-your-life scenes I’ve ever read.
In a previous post on this site, Terra Ziporyn notes, “Historical works of the imagination remind us that what is past is never really past, and that every moment that ever was can be relived and re-experienced.” As far as I know, accounts from people who actually lived through the flood of 1927 are scarce or nonexistent. Franklin and Fennelly have skillfully given readers a look at the fear, grit, and courage that must have ruled those people’s lives, so that their moments are relived every time someone reads the book. The passion for life, love, and hate that flourishes during those days (the time span of the novel is only a few weeks) reminds me of the passion that’s always evident in war novels, driven by the sense that the world as the characters know it could end at any moment. In addition to the life-and-death struggle, Franklin and Fennelly create a soul-baring love scene, rich with tenderness and fire.
Fennelly says in an essay published with the paperback edition of the novel that readers frequently ask how she and Franklin, who are married, were able to write a book together. She explains that they started off with her writing strictly from Dixie Clay’s point of view and Franklin writing from Ingersoll’s, but pretty soon they couldn’t resist “mucking about in each other’s pages,” and soon they began crafting scenes together, which is when the novel really took off.
Writing as a couple is appropriate for The Tilted World because at its core, it’s a story about relationships, particularly relationships that are pushed to the breaking point by events surrounding them. But then isn’t that what all history is—a story of people? As Dixie Clay realizes at the end of The Tilted World, “Now, three days after fleeing, it is not yet the story of the Great Flood of the Great River, it is just their story.”
I used to be a person who knew nothing about the flood of 1927. Now it’s a story I’ll never forget.
Join me here on June 10 for an interview with Tom Franklin. He’ll tell us more about Mississippi, the flood, and The Tilted World.