Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society by Amy Hill Hearth

Nowadays, people wouldn't think of Naples, Florida as a little hick town, but in 1962 it would have been a small redneck community. Amy Hill Hearth's debut novel, Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society brings the early sixties to life through the eyes of a small group of people viewed as eccentric at the time.

The narrator, Dora Witherspoon, is an eighty-year-old telling the story of Jackie Hart's arrival in town fifty years earlier. Dora says, "One person can come along and change your life." In 1962, Naples was "A sunbaked southern backwater no bigger than a cow town," only 800 people. "Naples was a redneck town and proud of it." When Jackie moved there from Boston with her husband and three kids, she wasn't prepared for the unsophisticated community. And, Naples certainly wasn't prepared for Jackie Hart.

When Jackie put together a little reading group, she brought together a group of outcasts. Miss Lansbury, the town librarian, might have been the only socially acceptable one. Dora was divorced, with no place to go after leaving her husband, so her cousin hired her at the post office. Mrs. Bailey White had recently been let out of jail after serving time for killing her husband. Priscila Harmon was a young Negro maid who loved to read and said she wanted to go to college. Plain Jane was in her fifties, and Robbie-Lee Simpson was Collier County's only obvious homosexual. Although the town scrutinized their reading, no one chose to join the little group.

The group thrived on discussions of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, raised a ruckus in town when they read Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and raised Jackie's consciousness with the reading of The Feminine Mystique. But, sometimes they learned more about each other when Jackie drove them home and they had moments of insight into lives they didn't understand.

But, Jackie Hart wasn't content to stay home and raise her three children. First, she took a job as a copy editor for the Naples Star, shocking everyone. "White, middle-class, married women didn't have jobs." Jackie had bigger plans, though. She took advantage of a Collier County tradition to meet the owner of the local radio station, and became "Miss Dreamsville," a woman of mystery whose music choices and sexy voice sparked discussion all over town. Jackie Hart shook up Naples in more ways than one.

Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society is a remarkable novel that examines the accepted roles for women, blacks, and even men in the early 1960s. Hearth uses one small group of people as witnesses to history and society. It was fascinating to read how a town that close to Cuba reacted to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Hearth did her research, using everything from the Ku Klux Klan, the Swamp Buggy Festival, and Jungle Larry's Safari to bring the community and the time period to life.

Amy Hill Hearth is the author of seven nonfiction books, including Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters' First 100 Years. However, it's Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society, her first novel, that deserves to be discussed in book groups. It's a readable story, filled with meaty details of life just fifty years ago. It's worth looking back to see how far we've come, and how roles have changed. It may have taken unusual characters such as Jackie Hart, Dora Witherspoon, Mrs. Bailey White, Priscilla Harmon, Robbie-Lee Simpson, and, of course, a librarian, Miss Lansbury, to get us to 2012.

Amy Hill Hearth's website is http://www.amyhillhearth.com

Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society by Amy Hill Hearth. Atria Books. 2012. ISBN 9781451675238 (hardcover), 272p.

FTC Full Disclosure - I requested an advanced reading copy from the publisher in order to review this book.


Jane R said...

My children like to give me books for my birthday, etc. I've had my eye on this title since I spotted it on your reading list. i believe I'll drop a hint or two.... or three.... It sounds like a perfect book to read on a chilly day with a cup of tea. Thanks for the superb review!

Janet Rudolph said...

Oh good.. glad you liked it. I have it on my iPad, and need to move it up the list :-)

Lesa said...

Oh, yes, Jane. Easy book to read, but with a great deal of substance. Drop a few hints.

Lesa said...

I did like it, Janet. It didn't hurt that I spent so much time in southwest Florida. It doesn't matter though. It's an easy read that's thought-provoking.

Tina said...

I love southern fiction, and found this one of the best to come along in quite awhile. I'm especially happy to have something at the library to give to people who ask "Do you have anything else like THE HELP?"

Lesa said...

Tina, I agree with you. It was one of the best Southern novels to come along in a while. So much to it!