“Man in the Blue Moon”
Author: Michael Morris
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Price: $13.99 (Paperback)
Michael Morris, who now lives in Birmingham, is a fifth-generation native of Perry, Florida, and it is there, in the Panhandle, that “Man in the Blue Moon” is set, in a little fictional town called Dead Lakes, just outside of Apalachicola, during 1917 and 1918. WWI is raging, but at a distance.
Dead Lakes is a narrow, claustrophobic, gossipy town; if the citizens of Perry, Florida, recognize their town, they will not be flattered.
It is fair to say that Morris’ primary subject in his two previous novels—"A Place called Wiregrass” and “Slow Way Home”— has been spouse abuse, with both novels set in dysfunctional households.
In “Blue Moon,” Morris’ heroine, Ella Wallace, is in a state one might call post-abuse.
Harlan, father of their three boys, seemed like a catch, but then became a gambler and then an opium addict. Forging Ella’s signature, he took out a second mortgage on the land her father had left her and then deserted the family for parts unknown.
Ella runs a tiny general store and the situation is desperate. If she does not come up with a substantial payment, the bank will take her land.
Ella reminded me strongly of Sally Field in “Places in the Heart,” in which the heroine must pick enough cotton to avoid ruin. In this case, having already sold almost every object of value in the house, Ella must cut and sell enough timber to make her payment.
Sally Field, on her cinematic cotton farm in Depression-era Texas, has Danny Glover and a blind John Malkovich for help.
Ella’s supporters and adversaries, the cast of this story, are an ensemble of Southern literary types, a kind of collage, but do not misunderstand, I really enjoyed it. These familiar types are combined in a pleasing way to create an original, very readable story, with some surprises and some suspense.
The thoroughly awful banker, Clive Gillespie, of Gillespie Savings and Loan, repeats often that it gives him no pleasure to foreclose on the property of nice folks, but you know it does—a powerful, probably sensual pleasure. He practically twirls his mustaches.
(Ella had turned down Clive’s proposal when they were young.)
Clive is aided by a corrupt sheriff, with which Southern literature abounds. There are local busybody/gossips, especially Myer Simpson, the preacher’s wife.
Ella has given refuge to a Native American woman, Narsissa, whose white husband left her to move to Brazil to join some ex-Confederates.
Harlan’s cousin Lanier Stillis shows up unexpectedly, and, although he has a mysterious past, proves to be a potent ally.
Lanier, from the Georgia mountains, has the power to heal, which is wonderful for the afflicted—in this novel two children and a mule—but arouses anger among the superstitious and the conventionally religious, who suspect his powers come from voodoo or Satan.
As if Lanier’s gift were not amazing enough, a charlatan preacher, Brother Mabry, an obese, non-sexual Elmer Gantry, arrives to plot with the banker to get Ella’s land. There is a fine natural spring on Ella’s land, and Mabry wants to set up a kind of lucrative Panhandle Lourdes, curing most known ailments. He means to convince the gullible and desperate that Dead Lakes is the site of the original Garden of Eden, the Apalachicola River and its four forks having been described in Genesis. It is possible he actually believes this.
Ella, Lanier, and her gang work day and night, cutting trees to pay the loan. The villains will stoop to any depth to stop them. It is rough going for a long while.
Readers will recognize variations on characters out of Faulkner, Caldwell, Welty, O’Connor, and other southern fiction. It’s as if Morris emptied out the Southern lit refrigerator and made a big stew of the contents. But it’s a satisfying, tasty stew. I liked it.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.