Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Land Remembered by Patrick Smith

I'm making progress through that luscious pile of books! Some are throwaways (meaning returns), some are Godiva for the mind (Cakewalk by Kate Moses), and some are pure vitamin-- books that give you something you didn't even know you needed. For me this week, that book was A Land Remembered by Patrick Smith. Published in 1984, this novel has quickly become a Florida classic, reprinted many times (by regional publisher Pineapple Press). I'll be honest, I never ever wanted to read this book, purposely staying away from it. It was on the shelf at my grandmother's house, on the shelf at my parents' house, even on my own shelf at one point. (I don't know how that happened.) Anyway, I had my reasons for shunning it. I've never been a fan of historical fiction, especially that of my home state. It seems like that bubblegum-flavored antibiotic medicine that we give children, sweet trickery to make them swallow down what's good for them. I don't know about you, but when I read, I don't necessarily want what's good for me. Yuck. But A Land Remembered was my friend's selection for a book club, so I held my nose and opened my mouth, er, eyes. And, glory be, it was delicious!

Now, I must tell you, my brother and I spent our childhoods looking at land. Most weekends, when we weren't visiting our grandmother in Okeechobee, we were on family trips to Live Oak, St. Augustine, Palatka, every small Florida town within a day's drive. My mother had a sort of land lust--she was determined to purchase an oak hammock or pine plot, anything that wasn't a sinkhole. Over the course of these many trips, I fell in a pond, got stuck by bayonet plants, sweated inordinate amounts of RC Cola, and generally was very miserable. I wanted to be at home, riding my bike or playing with Barbies. The only thing that made these pilgrimages at all palatable was taking a book along, which helped block out the reality quite well, except when I had to get out of the car and walk the property. We all had to accompany the realtor on this land survey. I begged to stay in the car, but no, mom was afraid someone would get me. So, instead, I trudged along behind them, dragging my feet, and a tick got me but good. It burrowed undiscovered into my head for a week, until, scratching along one day, I found it nestled there. But that's a story for another time. With these childhood memories long established, mellowing nicely, I had no desire to revisit the Florida landscape, unless it involved the beaches, palm trees, shells, and maybe a condo with a pool or two. And then I read Smith's book.

A Land Remembered tells the story of the MacIvey family, from their arrival in Florida during the Civil War to the late 1960s. (Smith ends it there, before the advent of Disney World and the accompanying Orlando boom, a good place to stop.) The family struggles in the Florida scrub to build a home, find food, simply to survive. What they eat is a revelation--poke salad, swamp cabbage (a.k.a. hearts of palm), coon, bread made from cattail-flour. I've read country hardship stories before--Tobacco Road, The Grapes of Wrath, the Little House books, but never have I been so enthralled. This book brought back to life some of my earliest Florida memories--I could picture and taste that food so well. Hearts of palm, with its crunchy asparagus tang, the bitter taste of turnip greens.

And reading the description of the land literally was like someone shaking me for my own good. I recognized the itch that scrub leaves on your legs when you pass through, the brown murk of the creeks hiding the pebbled alligators, the slick flatness of the grass a snake leaves behind. (Thank goodness, they always left! Snakebite is far worse than tickbite!) And the stories of the cattle...let me tell you, I once knew far more than I ever wanted to about cows. The MacIvey family makes their first fortune (after losing everything several times) by herding wild cattle to Punta Rassa every year. The family meets and befriends Indians, fights cattle rustlers, yields to mosquito swarms, and slowly grows rich off these cattle drives. Meanwhile, the state is changing. Henry Flagler takes his railway all the way to Key West, Palm Beach becomes the Southern Mecca, with Miami birthing its own breed of glamour just a few years behind. Florida evolves, and so do the MacIveys, and therein lies Smith's chief point: remember the land because it is almost gone.

To be honest, many people would not like this book. The dialogue sounds artificial at times, hokey even. The characters tend toward stereotypes, the escaped ex-slave Skillet, for instance. The females Emma and Glenda don't ring true at all--too good, too pure, martyrs of a sort. But, really, the MacIveys aren't the main characters--the land is. The beautiful state of Florida, the pure Florida of the mind, with its wide swaths of prairie and sinkhole bowls, the rivers, and everglades, and God bless it, even the scrub which scratches and cuts the legs of little girls.

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