Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society must surely win longest title of the year award. I wanted to read it because of the title, it is so intriguing. Set in 1962 it describes how one stranger has an enormous impact on a small conservative town in the Deep South. It’s narrated by Dora Witherspoon, or the the turtle lady as she is commonly known, now an old woman looking back at this extraordinary time in her life.
As she settles down to tell the story of how Jackie Hart turned the town upside down she gives her reasons for doing so. Firstly, do not underestimate the power an individual has and secondly, being a misfit is no bad thing. Dora is considered a bit of an outcast in Collier County. She is recently divorced and supporting herself through her job in the Post Office. She refuses to take her husband back, despite his pleas, which is considered almost unnatural by her neighbours. She is living a quiet and unfulfilled life until Jackie breezes in. Jackie is from Boston, with plenty of progressive northern ideas. She has ended up in Collier County because of her husband’s job; the family has upped sticks and made a journey not just of miles but also of lifestyle.
Jackie’s first radical act is to start up a reading group for women, in the public library. It attracts all the town’s misfits: Dora herself, old Mrs Bailey White recently out of prison for murdering her husband, Plain Jane the poet, Robbie-Lee Simpson a Sears employee and homosexual and Priscilla Harmon a young black maid. The librarian Miss Lansbury presides, she too is out of the norm, a spinster bookworm. The group raises the suspicions of the local, what are they doing all together reading potentially seditious and dangerous material? Racial segregation was still a massive issue at this time, and the book has some scary incidents on that front. It also highlights how difficult it was for women to live independent lives, and the problems confronting gay men. Many of the group are hiding parts of their lives, and one of the really enjoyable parts of the book is finding out those secrets.
Jackie is a great character, bold and determined, fed up with being oppressed and reluctant to back down. She sure shakes things up around town. A few people adore her, many are confused by her and a handful think her influence is downright outrageous. Whilst I was reading the book I felt it was very much like an actual memoir; once I read the acknowledgements at the end I understood why. Jackie is based on her own mother-in-law. I loved that there is this real-life connection, because the story did feel very real much of the time. It’s a good read, that speeds by, but also has a little something more to say for itself. It has some sad moments, a few funny ones too, but ultimately it is an uplifting novel about hope that declares change is possible.
My thanks to Atria Books for allowing me to read this book via NetGalley; I’ve enjoyed my first foray into eARCs!