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The following review appeared 6 November 2017 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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There is a homeplace in nearly every American novel. Sometimes it's the focus of the story; other times it's in the background. But every protagonist has fled their homeplace, or fled and returned--or else never left at all. Those who flee take some of their homeplace with them. Homeplaces haunt, choke, nourish, comfort, and extinguish the spirit, often all at once. They are populated with family we did not choose, including some we'd never choose. They swarm with friends we didn't choose either; we just grew up with them as they revealed their flaws a little at a time, and we adjusted and forgave along the way. Even the dead and the absent are alive in the homeplace, insisting on remembrance.
Homeplaces have gravitational pulls that are barely escaped, and which never fully subside. If your life founders on a rocky foreign shore, the homeplace is where you return to heal. They offer strength and loyalty and faith and acceptance--or convincing illusions of these all-American virtues. If our homeplaces are flawed, so are we, and we can hardly face life without one, whether we left one, never left, or have returned to one. Homeplaces are mythic, and yet we all have one.
Hannibal, Missouri is the homeplace of Laura Brooks, the Huck-like heroine of Melissa Young's debut novel, Flood, and Laura's life as a nurse in Florida has unexpectedly faltered ten years after she fled Hannibal during a great flood on July 4th, 1993. Home was confining and suffocating, and populated with the sort of family and friends who tear you down and hold you back. The town is preoccupied with Tom and Becky and has yet to come to grips with Huck and Jim. There are haves and have-nots. The haves make money off the swarms of tourists and never get flooded, but if you are a have-not you get flooded and you spend what money you have at the local Walmart "where half your social life happens in the parking lot" (147). But the have-nots do have style--even their babies have mullets (265).
Floods define the place, and so does the lottery if you are a have-not. After driving twenty-two hours non-stop to get home, Laura learns that the Mississippi River is rising toward another major flood, and finds her mother dozing in her recliner in front of the TV waiting for an update on the flood stages and her Lotto numbers. "When you can see the Mississippi out your windows, flood stages are your religion. And when you can't imagine how to dig yourself out of your hole, you put your faith in the Powerball" Laura muses (2-3). Young knows her people and captures them with the right words, and she also knows her homeplace bugs. When Laura opens a "dirty window to let in some fresh air" she notices that a "parade of dead flies rests belly-up on the sill, their legs reaching toward freedom" (7-8). Emily Dickinson knew the metaphoric value of one live fly, and Young knows the value of a bunch of dead ones with their eyes on the prize. She knows her Mark Twain too. No sooner is Laura home that she is thinking of leaving again: "Anywhere but here. Sometimes being stuck is worse than staying put. What we need is a signal, a mark twain, to show us that the water is deep enough for us to get out" (82). And she knows that "the only thing harder in Hannibal's hierarchy than being poor and white was being respectable and black" (112).
So, what could possibly keep her home? Friends and family? She and her mother have a dysfunctional relationship. Her best friend Rose is going through a divorce from her husband Josh (aka "The Bastard") who has money for booze but not for the antibiotics needed by his son Bobby. He marks the heel of his boots with crossed nails to keep away the Devil. It doesn't work. To make ends meet, Rose, who is not the model of stability, embezzles from her employer, and must borrow the last of Laura's savings to avoid jail and losing her son. Laura's father puts in a brief appearance to steal something from her mother. His stomach is a fish-belly white. Laura's Aunt Betty is dependable and "when in doubt, she feeds people" (231). Every Laura should have an Aunt Betty. Laura's brother Trey is a drug-addict who dreams of a better life. Finally, there's Laura's old boyfriend, Sammy, the reason she left in the first place because he was the only reason she had for staying, but he disappointed her. Yet the very sight of him, his touch, his smell, just the thought of him, sends Laura into spasms of yearning and confusion. Twainians will by now have recognized some allusions to Mark Twain and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Josh, Sammy, Laura, an absent thieving father, crossed nails in boots, fish-belly white, and an aunt who plays a much-needed maternal role.
The Twainian allusions are lightly framed by intercalary extracts from Painting Fences, a manual written by Laura's English teacher, Melanie K. Bechtold (aka Ms. B) to help aspiring Tom Sawyers and Becky Thatchers learn about Mark Twain and prep for Hannibal's annual Tom and Becky contest. Rose's son Bobby is hoping he will be selected as Tom, a role won years before by Laura's boyfriend Sammy. But Laura considers herself "more of a Huck than a Becky" (106) and has a raft tattoo to prove it. One of the chapters in Ms. B's manual describes the time the Mississippi River ran backwards for several hours after an earthquake in 1812, a metaphor for Laura's return home that is hard to miss.
But Laura has changed and her homeplace has not. Will Laura find enough to keep her home or will she light out for the Territory? She wonders if "maybe it takes more courage to invest, dig in, and make it a home you want" (107). On the other hand, after watching her high school chums reliving their glory days, she concludes "I want everything good to be in front of me, not behind" (113). But Laura is a Huck who rubs her raft tattoo for good luck, and as she watches tourists eating ice cream at Becky's Old Fashioned Ice Cream Emporium and photographing each other pretending to whitewash "Tom's fence" next to the boyhood home, she reflects that "Huck would fit in even less now. He was never this civilized, never behaved the way the town wanted him to" (123).
Ms. B writes in her manual that Huck spent his first days on Jackson Island "eating berries and fish, smoking tobacco, and watching the stars" (243). Laura is surrounded by people who eat and smoke, but she alone does all three. Others gaze at the July 4th fireworks, but never the stars beyond. Laura is clear-eyed enough to see the flaws in her family and friends, and she accepts that she is just as flawed as her people and their place--and why shouldn't she? All of these flawed people have repeatedly told her so. She gets what passes for sage advice from her Aunt Betty: "Folks think there's a right or wrong choice in life. There ain't. You just choose and make it work. Bloom where you're planted, I say" (293). This was the same advice she'd given Laura's mother about her father. Sometimes what passes for wisdom sounds more like excuses for inaction.
Laura's homeplace is not life-affirming, but soul-killing. Her family and friends are strong and loyal. Until they are neither. They literally spin their wheels in driveways and parking lots, but figuratively chase their tails at every other moment. When they are backed into a corner they toss a prayer in Jesus' direction instead of backing out of the corner they've backed themselves into. This all passes for civilization in Laura's homeplace. Her Sammy was once a "Tom" but Laura was never a Becky, and although her raft tattoo is skin-deep her Huckness goes to the bone. At the same time, Sammy is the gravitational pull that draws her back. But she can't forget why she left him and her homeplace. Flood waters breach levees and destroy lives, but they leave fertile ground in their wake. One moment she may stay; the next moment she may go. You can't go home again. Or, can you? Laura at last has her own "All right then, I'll go to hell" moment and takes action. But such moments can actually launch you on your way to Hell, just the same as lighting out for an unknown Territory. Hell could be just beyond the horizon, or hidden among familiar surroundings.
T. S. Eliot said of Mark Twain's writing of Huckleberry Finn that the book would give readers what each reader was capable of taking from it, and that Twain may have written a much better book than he realized. Eliot was not excusing Mark Twain: What Eliot wrote is what genuine wisdom looks like on the printed page. The same could be said of Melissa Young and Flood. It's not a masterpiece like Twain's work, but it's much larger than its story of Laura and her Hannibal. What readers are given by this story will depend on what readers bring with them to the reading of it. Flood reflects America's rural-urban divide, racism, empty-headed faith, willful ignorance, wheel-spinning, and marveling at distracting fireworks instead of the vast universe looming behind them. It's more than a hillbilly elegy.
No readers will correctly guess what Laura decides, and how readers feel about her decision will reflect as much about themselves and their own homeplaces as about Laura's. The great American homeplace is aspiration, not stagnation, and each generation wishes for the next generation a chance at a better life, sprung up from the fertile fields of the generation before it. In this place horizons, not just levees, are breached. Readers will hope for a sequel. What does Laura do next? A fresh first novel is a fine beginning, but sequels can be stellar works, as Mark Twain himself could attest.