Last month, I had an article about Great Oaks, a historic house in Greenwood, Florida.
A colleague wrote me afterwards to recommend a book — a story set at Great Oaks in the 1830s. The tale is fiction (the community was founded in 1824; Great Oaks was built in the 1860s), but a few events in the story are factual, and the point of reading the book was to get the description of Greenwood and Marianna, which hadn’t changed that much by the time Emmett lived there in the 1890s. Indeed, Greenwood — like Marianna — had grown up a bit by the 1890s, but it was still rural, timber was still king, roads were still bad, travel was still difficult and onerous, and so forth.
The book is out of print, so I put in a request through InterLibrary Loan. One week later, the book was in my office.
Here’s the book:
Not a very exciting cover, is it? Well, you can’t judge a book by the cover. That’s for sure. Take a look at the customer reviews of this book — talk about interesting! Here’s another, more ‘Scarlett O’Hara’ version of the cover from Amazon.com:
I read the entire book in about three days.
I thought Hall’s book was well researched; of course, Hall doesn’t include any research notes or bibliographic information in the book (because it is fiction), but some of the events that take place in the book are factual — i.e., the hurricane that wiped out St. Joseph, and the yellow fever epidemic. Also, she gives you specific, detailed descriptions of the land, the buildings, and how people actually lived on a 19th century plantation. We, who don’t have to make every single thing we own nowadays, get a good look at how hard and costly it was to obtain anything that wasn’t made right there on the plantation (for example, the materials used to make Caline’s wedding dress).
The book also mentions a house, built by Dr. Samuel Bellamy, where the heroine, Caline Underwood, stayed on her way to her new home in St. Joseph, Florida.
It is a big book — over 500 pages — and it holds your interest throughout.
I have to also admit, while I got very good feel for what it was like to live in rural Florida at that time, as I was reading the story, I kept seeing parallels between Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, which was published only 11 years before The Great Tide.
A few examples:
- Remember when Scarlett O’Hara was fleeing burning Atlanta with Melanie Wilkes on an old mattress in the back of a rickety old wagon, with a sorry ass mule to pull them along to her family home at Tara? Caline flees St. Joseph, Florida with her ailing yellow-fevered husband Douglas on an old mattress in the back of a rickety old wagon, with a sorry ass horse, to pull them all the way to her family home in Greenwood.
- Along the way to Tara, Scarlett’s mule dies, and she has to pull the wagon herself the last mile or so to Tara, only to find that the Yankees have trashed the place and her mother is dead. In Hall’s book, Caline and her small traveling party stop for the night, but awake to find their horse gone/stolen, and she has to pull the wagon the rest of the way to Greenwood, only to find that the family plantation is a shambles (in the story, the economy went bust and her family lost almost everything but the house and property in the process).
- There are parallels in the personalities; i.e., Scarlett and Caline are sassy and outspoken, and don’t care if others (elders) disapprove. Also, the two women have little ‘catchphrases’: Where Scarlett says, “fiddle-dee-dee,” Caline says, “stuff and nonsense.”
- In GWTW, the marriage between Rhett and Scarlett, at least initially, is a business deal. Likewise with Caline and her husband, the wealthy Douglas Underwood. Both Scarlett and Caline come right out and tell the men they aren’t in love with them; they want to be wealthy and comfortable, and not have to worry about poverty.
For what it is worth: When I mention the comparison between Hall and Mitchell’s books, the point is not to be critical of Ms. Hall as a writer, but to highlight how we are all influenced by what we read, study, research. Writers borrow literary tricks from other writers all the time; Rubylea Hall surely read GWTW (like everyone else did when it became a best-seller), and was influenced by it.)
Borrowing writing formulae/structures is not wrong, nor is it plagiarism. For example, many novels, books and stories follow a tried-and-true storytelling structure — an eight-point arc. Go ahead, pick a book you like, and chart it out. You’ll see what I mean.
It was good to discover this book. I enjoyed reading it, and it gave me a really good ‘feel’ for the Marianna environment, which will be useful when I start writing that section of Emmett’s story.