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Flood: A Novel. Melissa Scholes Young. Center Street/Hachette Book Group, 2017. Pp. 321. Hardcover $26.00. ISBN 978-1-4789-7078 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-4789-7076-7 (ebook).
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.
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