Books: Southern beliefs and traditions, circa 1962

books@thestate.comApril 14, 2013 

  • At a glance

    “Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society” by Amy Hill Hearth, Atria Paperback (a Simon and Schuster imprint), 266 pages, $15

Amy Hearth Hill began noodling around with her first novel just for fun.

Known for her nonfiction books — the most famous being “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years” — Hearth didn’t even give a thought to selling the story. It was just her attempt at relaxation.

“The economy was horrible, the book industry was a total mess, . . . so I really was not sure I wanted to dive into a big new nonfiction project,” she says. Instead, “I set out to write a book that I would want to read — something that’s meaningful but . . . fun.”

Using her mother-in-law as inspiration, Hearth soon found a main character: Jackie Hart, a well-intentioned but misplaced Bostonian who must follow her husband to tiny Naples, Fla., because of his new job.

The time is 1962 — before the Civil Rights Act, before women’s liberation, before the drive for gay rights — and so Hearth’s Jackie raises more than a few eyebrows, and provokes a few tempers, when she gathers together the local misfits into the pompously named Collier County Women’s Literary Society.

There are The Turtle Lady (she rescues ailing turtles), a divorcee who works at the post office; a woman just out of prison after serving a term for murdering her husband; a young black maid who harbors dreams of college; a closeted gay man doing a very bad job of keeping his secret; and a suspiciously single librarian.

When Hearth finished the novel, she showed it to a publisher, hoping for a critique. The story was so different from anything she had written before, and she wasn’t sure whether it was any good.

To her surprise — “I had no idea that people would like it” — the publisher bought it. Months later, the paperback has become a favorite of book clubs nationwide.

At the core of the book are Southern beliefs and traditions — things Hearth sampled as she moved back and forth between North and South because of her father’s job with General Electric. Hearth spent five years of her childhood in Columbia, when her father worked at the GE plant on St. Andrews Road, in the no-man’s land between the capital city and the whistle stop of Irmo.

“It was fun running wild in South Carolina,” she says of her childhood. “There were a lot of interesting people around us. There were a lot of interesting characters.”

Later, she attended the University of Tampa, earning a degree in creative writing, and became a reporter for the Tampa Magazine, the Daytona Beach News Journal and the New York Times. During her work, she says, she continued to collect characters.

She met and married a Southern boy — one who hailed from small-town Florida. His mother, a fiery-haired Bostonian, was the inspiration for the heroine of “Miss Dreamsville.” She, like Jackie, took her Yankee ways to Collier County — a trait that often got her into trouble.

“I loved writing about this North-South divide,” Hearth says. “I don’t think people write about it as much as maybe they could.”

In “Miss Dreamsville,” Jackie often speaks first and apologizes later — after a fashion.

She never dreams she’s flouting Southern tradition by organizing her “literary society,” which is designed merely to keep her mind stimulated after a day of housewifery and motherhood.

But if the makeup of Jackie’s group weren’t enough to raise eyebrows, its list of books would be: pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” which rails against the use of the insecticide DDT, and Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” — the first of which propels one group member to run, shouting, after the local mosquito truck.

Most provocative of all, though, Jackie and her sexy voice become the mysterious “Miss Dreamsville” on local radio, sending boys young and old into a collective swoon. (Hearth’s mother-in-law also was a “Miss Dreamsville.”)

“I loved writing about a clueless Yankee,” Hill says about Jackie. “I knew that she would be well intentioned but that she would bungle some things.

“I didn’t set out to write a social history. There’s a lot of humor in it.”

Still, “I loved getting some of these things into the book.”

Young readers, she says, “are in shock. They have forgotten — or never knew — what it was like for a woman to be defined by her husband’s status.”

In one scene, Jackie storms out of the house and attempts to buy a new car to spite her husband — who thinks she should be ecstatic with a new station wagon. Unfortunately, she must drive several counties away to find a dealer willing to sell her a car without her husband’s approval.

Baby boomers, Hearth says, just smile and nod their heads in recognition.

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