Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society: A Novel

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9781451675238: Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society: A Novel
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A brilliant debut novel from a New York Times bestselling author about a transplanted wife from Boston who arrives in Florida in the 1960s, starts a literary salon, and shakes up the status quo.

Eighty-year-old Dora, the narrator of a story that began a half century earlier, is bonding with an unlikely set of friends, including Jackie Hart, a restless middle-aged wife and mother from Boston, who gets into all sorts of trouble when her family moves to a small, sleepy town in Collier County, Florida, circa 1962.

With humor and insight the novel chronicles the awkward North-South cultural divide as Jackie, this hapless but charming “Yankee,” looks for some excitement in her life by accepting an opportunity to host a local radio show where she creates a mysterious, late-night persona, “Miss Dreamsville,” and by launching a reading group—the Collier County Women’s Literary Society—thus sending the conservative and racially segregated town into uproar. The only townspeople who venture to join are regarded as outsiders at best—a young gay man, a divorced woman, a poet, and a young black woman who dreams of going to college.

This brilliant fiction debut by Amy Hill Hearth, a New York Times bestselling author, brings to life unforgettable characters who found the one thing that eluded them as individuals:a place in the world. Inspired by a real person, Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society will touch the heart of anyone and everyone who has ever felt like an outsider longing to fit in.

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About the Author:

Amy Hill Hearth is the author of Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society and Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County, in addition to author or coauthor of seven nonfiction books, including Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, the New York Times bestseller-turned-Broadway-play. Hearth, a former writer for The New York Times, began her career as a reporter at a small daily newspaper in Florida, where she met her future husband, Blair (a Collier County native). She is a graduate of the University of Tampa.
 

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Miss Dreamsville
One

My name is Dora Witherspoon but most folks know me as the Turtle Lady. A long time ago, I rescued a snapping turtle the size of a truck tire from the middle of Highway 41, a move deemed so foolish it became local legend. I can’t say I’m partial to it, but here in the South, nicknames stick like bottomland mud.

I’d like to tell you a story from my younger days. I’ve been a storyteller my whole life, but I wasn’t ready to tell this one until now. It happened fifty years ago—in 1962. Parts of it are hard for me to share, but the fact is that I’m old now—eighty years of age, if you must know—and probably running out of time. I want young’uns to know about my time and place, the people I knew, and a world that’s all but gone. I want them to know that one person can come along and change your life, and that being a misfit, as I was, doesn’t mean you won’t find friends and your place in the world.

HER NAME WAS JACKIE HART, and the first time I set eyes on her was across the counter at the post office. She’d moved to Collier County with her husband and kids from, of all places, Boston. Before we knew it, she turned things upside down faster than you can say “Yankee carpetbagger.”

From the get-go, Jackie was a troublemaker in the eyes of the town fathers, but to the few of us who gave her a chance, her arrival in town was a godsend. She started a little reading group, bringing together the most unlikely people in town, including me. We were all outcasts, but as a group we became strong.

None of us saw these changes coming, though. Jackie was like a late-afternoon storm on the Gulf, the kind that comes from nowhere and sends even the old-time fishermen hurrying to shore. She was a surprise, that’s for sure.

I’d been working at the post office for about a year, since my divorce, and there were days—like the one when I met Jackie—that were so slow, I swear I could’ve watched my fingernails grow if I’d had a mind to. By two o’clock there wasn’t a thing to do but watch the horseflies dodge the slats of the ceiling fan. I wasn’t supposed to, but I started reading magazines that hadn’t been sorted yet. First I studied Mr. Freeland’s copy of Time magazine. But then I couldn’t resist peeking at Vogue. No one got Vogue. Whoever the person was—a Mrs. J. Hart—was new in town. The rest of the Hart family didn’t get much mail, but I had already noticed that Mrs. J. Hart got all kinds of stuff that had probably never—until now—passed through the sorting station up at Fort Myers. The New Yorker. National Geographic (generally frowned upon since it might include pictures of naked African people). And, of course, Vogue.

I kept returning to Vogue. I’m not sure I’d ever seen a copy. I was studying the clothes and models and perfume ads, and breaking post office regulation number 3651 (reading a customer’s periodical), when I heard a polite little cough and looked up. And there was Jackie.

She was wearing an enormous straw hat and a pair of sunglasses that made her look like she’d just left a party hosted by Sophia Loren on the French Riviera. Her skin was very white, as if she’d never encountered a single ray of sun, and her hair, peeking out from under her hat, was what my mama would have called “the barn’s on fire” red. Add to it the way she carried herself and the result was something we rarely saw in Collier County—glamour.

No doubt about it, she was the most interesting person to show up at my postal counter since Mrs. Bailey White was finally let out of jail and moved back home the year before. While the peculiar Mrs. Bailey White was a curiosity, the stunning woman now standing before me was something else entirely. You could be sure she’d never been called mousy, a word I often thought of in connection with myself. I felt like a hick in my humble seersucker dress with the self-tie belt, and was glad she couldn’t see my penny loafers. She had what Mama called an hourglass figure, which made my flat little chest and rear end seem positively boyish in comparison.

“Oh, is that the new copy of Vogue?” she asked, with an innocence that might have been phony but I wasn’t sure. She spun the magazine around and examined the cover.

“Hm,” she said. “I do believe this is my copy.”

I would have died of shame except I wanted to see what she would do next. Yet all she did was stand absolutely still, waiting for me to answer.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, and my voice came out kind of hushed. “I’m very sorry. I admit I was violating post office regulations. Please,” I added, “don’t tell my boss or I could lose my job.”

She took off her sunglasses and looked at me, eyeball to eyeball. Her eyes were large and round and skillfully made up. “I would never do that,” she said, adding, “but in the future, could I read my magazine first, please? And then you can borrow it when I’m done? Would that be all right?” Everything came out as a question.

I was pretty sure—but not 100 percent—that she wasn’t being sarcastic. I pulled together the rest of her mail and gave it to her. She walked to the door, then stopped. Looking back at me, she asked, “What else do you like to read?”

I couldn’t have been more surprised if she’d asked for directions to the nearest pool hall. “Well, um, sometimes I read Life magazine,” I said. “And Ladies’ Home Journal.”

“Do you like novels?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I haven’t read too many.”

“Well, once I am settled, I am thinking of asking the library to start a women’s reading group. I was thinking we could call it the Collier County Women’s Literary Society. Would you like to be part of it?”

“Well . . . okay.” I was not really sure I meant it, although a part of me was deeply flattered.

“What, may I ask, is your name?”

“Dora,” I said. “Dora Witherspoon.”

Less than a month later, I started seeing flyers around town announcing the first meeting. “A women’s literary society—what the hell is that?” my boss, Marty, muttered. Jackie had posted a flyer on the post office bulletin board, next to the Collier County mosquito spraying schedule and the pulled pork fund-raiser that the Masons made everyone suffer through every year.

“It’s just people who like to read books,” I said.

“You mean like the Bible?”

“I don’t know. Maybe cookbooks. Maybe a few novels.”

“Novels?” Marty raised an eyebrow.

“Well, how much trouble can we get in, reading books at the library?” I said, a little irritated. “As a matter of fact, I may go myself.” Marty could be condescending, and he was convinced everything was a plot hatched by Communists.

“Oh, I guess you’re right,” he said finally.

Now I felt like I had to go. Besides, maybe I would learn something new. I wasn’t what you’d call worldly. In fact, I’d never been out of Florida. But I’d had two years at the junior college in Saint Petersburg, and while it was just a hundred and twenty miles up the Gulf, the experience had been an eye-opener. One of my professors was from Nevada. Another, from New Orleans. My fellow lodgers at the rooming house where I lived were women who had either retired to Saint Petersburg or (in the case of one lady, whose story I never learned) seemed to be running away from something up north. From them I learned about places like Ohio and Pennsylvania. There was one lady, a Mrs. Jamesway, who had a subscription to a big-city newspaper called the Toledo Blade. Even though it arrived in the mail three or four days after it was published, it was still fun to read.

After I finished junior college, I married Darryl and moved to Ocala. That’s horse country, in north-central Florida. Like me, Darryl was from Collier County—I’d known him my whole life. But while I was at school, he started a small construction company and somehow got a job building a gorgeous new estate near Ocala for some rich folks from Kentucky. The barns Darryl built were nicer than any house I’d ever been in. The owners—a man and his wife in their fifties—talked about impossibly wonderful places they traveled to often, like London, New York, and San Francisco.

Any dreams I had for the future ended with my divorce. My parents were dead, I’m an only child, and I was inching up on my thirtieth birthday. I had nowhere else to go except the little cottage in Naples that had been in my father’s family for three generations and was spitting distance from the Gulf. I needed a job, but the only person who would hire me was my cousin Marty, who ran the post office. Everyone else treated me like I had mange.

I didn’t have high hopes when I went to the first meeting of the Collier County Women’s Literary Society. To my surprise, seven people showed up, which was five more than I expected. We sat on folding chairs in a little circle—Jackie, me, Miss Lansbury (the librarian), Mrs. Bailey White (the old lady who had returned from jail the previous year and was always called by her entire name as a sign of respect for her age), a young colored girl wearing a formal maid’s uniform, a woman in her fifties who wrote poetry and said her name was Plain Jane, and the town’s one and only Sears employee, Robbie-Lee Simpson, Collier County’s only obvious homosexual.

Miss Lansbury spoke first. “Welcome!” she said in her brisk, pleasant librarian voice. She wore a sleeveless sheath in pale green with a floral-patterned scarf that was perfectly matched. I tried to guess her age and concluded she was probably about thirty-five. She was still considered new in town—having lived here only ten years or so—and suspiciously single. However, seeing as she was a librarian, people let it go. After all, she was that rare bird—a career girl—and destined to be an old maid, a problem of her own making. She had beautiful black hair thanks to her Spanish ancestors. “Mrs. Jacqueline Hart”—she gestured politely toward Jackie—“who just moved to town from Boston, has spearheaded this new group. Mrs. Hart, would you like to tell us a little more about yourself?”

Jackie looked surprised but rose to the occasion. “Well, my family moved here exactly one month ago. My husband, Ted, is the new business manager for the Toomb family. We have three children—twin girls who are fourteen and a son who is twelve.”

She didn’t have to explain who the Toomb family was. They were one of the most powerful families in South Florida, though a rung or two down from the Colliers. Everyone had heard that old Mr. Toomb, who wanted a better grasp of how things worked in the North, had gone out and hired a business manager from Boston. The man he hired was Ted Hart, a World War Two Army veteran who had put himself through college on the GI Bill.

“Oh,” Jackie added, “and please call me Jackie.”

“You mean like the Jackie in the White House?” Mrs. Bailey White asked lightly.

“Well, not quite like her, no,” Jackie said and smiled. “I have a northern accent, that’s true. But I’m not skinny and I couldn’t hope to be as elegant as that Jackie.”

But the comparison, in one way, was striking. I couldn’t imagine Jackie Kennedy or Jackie Hart adapting very easily to life in our little town. People think of Naples as one of the richest, swankiest places on earth, but back in 1962 it was a sunbaked southern backwater no bigger than a cow pie. There were maybe eight hundred people living here, a number that grew to a whopping twelve hundred or so in the winter when the Yankees would come down to fish for sea bass and snook. Naples was a redneck town and proud of it.

I have to admit that moving here was a pretty raw deal. I say that even though I’m from Collier County and have at least a smidgen of pride. But relocating here must have been especially shocking to Jackie. She was, clearly, a “Boston girl” through and through. Cultured. Progressive. All that Yankee stuff we Southerners find so irritating.

No one knew what to say next, so Miss Lansbury jumped in again. “Well, I must say I am delighted. Thrilled. I think the rest of us know who each other are, right? Oh, one more thing: Robbie-Lee, this is supposed to be a women’s literary society, so you shouldn’t really be here. But if everyone is okay with it, I suppose it’s all right. Does anyone have any objections?”

No one did, so Robbie-Lee stayed.

I was actually more surprised that the Negro girl had come. You never saw colored folk at the town library. Her being there was bold, even reckless. Then again, what would we have done to her? Given her the evil eye until she left? Made a fuss and told her to leave? None of the rest of us sitting around our little circle seemed to be looking daggers in her direction. Maybe the Collier County Women’s Literary Society would be that rarest of organizations—an integrated one.

I suppose it’s still basically true, but in those days, white people tended to fall into three categories. There were those who went out of their way to harm or hold back Negroes in any way they could. Then there were those who never gave Negroes much thought and really didn’t care. And then there was a small group of white folks who felt badly about the cruel way Negroes were treated and wanted to see things improve.

I was raised to be in the last category. My father, who I don’t remember well, was said to be a regular old redneck. But Mama was a nurse, and during her training someone had drilled into her head that all people were human and should be treated accordingly. She worked for the only doctor in town, and sometimes, when she was needed at the four-bed hospital, she would treat colored folks who came to the back door. But she didn’t advertise that she did this and told me to keep quiet too. Strange to think you could get hurt because you’d been helping someone.

Mostly, though, I’d had little interaction with Negroes. We lived in different parts of town and belonged to different churches. The Supreme Court of the USA had famously decided, back in the fifties, that schools were supposed to be integrated, but here in Collier County they apparently hadn’t gotten the message. The white kids were still picked up by a shiny yellow school bus and taken to their well-kept schools—grammar, junior high, and a new high school north of town. The colored kids were picked up by a bus that predated World War Two and looked like it had survived (more or less) Hurricane Donna. The so-called colored bus went in the opposite direction, to a single school—first through twelfth grades. I had never been there—I don’t think any white person ever had—but I heard the place was a shambles.

Now, if my family had been rich, we would have had colored servants, but Mama, being a widowed nurse with little money to spare, did her own cooking, cleaning, and ironing. Same with everyone else in our part of town. We’d see Negroes now and then, but they didn’t talk to you and you didn’t talk to them. I thought they were the unfriendliest people on earth. Only when I was older did I realize they were avoiding us to stay alive.

As we sat around the little circle with Miss Lansbury as our leader, I tried not to stare at the colored girl. I wondered what she would do about the curfew (eight p.m. in the summer, six p.m. in the winter, when nightfall came earlier), which applied only to Negroes. But she herself brought up the topic. “My name is Priscilla Harmon and I would like to be part of this group.” She had taken off her maid’s cap and perched a pair of horn-rimmed glasses on her nose. She looked like an entirely different person. “I love to read,” she added. We all nodded and smiled. Encouraged, she said, “I would like to go to college, maybe Bethune-Cookman....

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