The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac
_Flood: A Novel_. Melissa Scholes Young. Center Street/Hachette Book Group,
2017. Pp. 321. Hardcover $26.00. ISBN 978-1-4789-7078 (hardcover). ISBN
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac Donnell.
Copyright (c) 2017 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.
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.
The Twainian allusions are lightly framed by intercalary extracts from
_Painting Fences_, a manual written by Laura's English teacher, Melanie K.
Bechtold (aka Ms. B) to help aspiring Tom Sawyers and Becky Thatchers learn
about Mark Twain and prep for Hannibal's annual Tom and Becky contest.
Rose's son Bobby is hoping he will be selected as Tom, a role won years
before by Laura's boyfriend Sammy. But Laura considers herself "more of a
Huck than a Becky" (106) and has a raft tattoo to prove it. One of the
chapters in Ms. B's manual describes the time the Mississippi River ran
backwards for several hours after an earthquake in 1812, a metaphor for
Laura's return home that is hard to miss.
But Laura has changed and her homeplace has not. Will Laura find enough to
keep her home or will she light out for the Territory? She wonders if
"maybe it takes more courage to invest, dig in, and make it a home you
want" (107). On the other hand, after watching her high school chums
reliving their glory days, she concludes "I want everything good to be in
front of me, not behind" (113). But Laura is a Huck who rubs her raft
tattoo for good luck, and as she watches tourists eating ice cream at
Becky's Old Fashioned Ice Cream Emporium and photographing each other
pretending to whitewash "Tom's fence" next to the boyhood home, she
reflects that "Huck would fit in even less now. He was never this
civilized, never behaved the way the town wanted him to" (123).
Ms. B writes in her manual that Huck spent his first days on Jackson Island
"eating berries and fish, smoking tobacco, and watching the stars" (243).
Laura is surrounded by people who eat and smoke, but she alone does all
three. Others gaze at the July 4th fireworks, but never the stars beyond.
Laura is clear-eyed enough to see the flaws in her family and friends, and
she accepts that she is just as flawed as her people and their place--and
why shouldn't she? All of these flawed people have repeatedly told her so.
She gets what passes for sage advice from her Aunt Betty: "Folks think
there's a right or wrong choice in life. There ain't. You just choose and
make it work. Bloom where you're planted, I say" (293). This was the same
advice she'd given Laura's mother about her father. Sometimes what passes
for wisdom sounds more like excuses for inaction.
Laura's homeplace is not life-affirming, but soul-killing. Her family and
friends are strong and loyal. Until they are neither. They literally spin
their wheels in driveways and parking lots, but figuratively chase their
tails at every other moment. When they are backed into a corner they toss a
prayer in Jesus' direction instead of backing out of the corner they've
backed themselves into. This all passes for civilization in Laura's
homeplace. Her Sammy was once a "Tom" but Laura was never a Becky, and
although her raft tattoo is skin-deep her Huckness goes to the bone. At the
same time, Sammy is the gravitational pull that draws her back. But she
can't forget why she left him and her homeplace. Flood waters breach levees
and destroy lives, but they leave fertile ground in their wake. One moment
she may stay; the next moment she may go. You can't go home again. Or, can
you? Laura at last has her own "All right then, I'll go to hell" moment and
takes action. But such moments can actually launch you on your way to Hell,
just the same as lighting out for an unknown Territory. Hell could be just
beyond the horizon, or hidden among familiar surroundings.
T. S. Eliot said of Mark Twain's writing of _Huckleberry Finn_ that the
book would give readers what each reader was capable of taking from it, and
that Twain may have written a much better book than he realized. Eliot was
not excusing Mark Twain: What Eliot wrote is what genuine wisdom looks like
on the printed page. The same could be said of Melissa Young and _Flood_.
It's not a masterpiece like Twain's work, but it's much larger than its
story of Laura and her Hannibal. What readers are given by this story will
depend on what readers bring with them to the reading of it. _Flood_
reflects America's rural-urban divide, racism, empty-headed faith, willful
ignorance, wheel-spinning, and marveling at distracting fireworks instead
of the vast universe looming behind them. It's more than a hillbilly elegy.
No readers will correctly guess what Laura decides, and how readers feel
about her decision will reflect as much about themselves and their own
homeplaces as about Laura's. The great American homeplace is aspiration,
not stagnation, and each generation wishes for the next generation a chance
at a better life, sprung up from the fertile fields of the generation
before it. In this place horizons, not just levees, are breached. Readers
will hope for a sequel. What does Laura do next? A fresh first novel is a
fine beginning, but sequels can be stellar works, as Mark Twain himself