‘The Tilted World’ is historical fiction at its best

tilted world

Rating: 5 stars

“The Tilted World” by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly is a story filled with beautiful language, great characters, and one of the worst natural disasters ever in America. It’s the story of a bootlegger and a federal revenue agent (during Prohibition) who, against all odds, fall in love.

The natural disaster: During the spring of 1927, the Mississippi flooded. The authors’ note states, “The levee at Mounds Landing, near Greenville, Mississippi, collapsed, and a wall of water one hundred feet high and with twice the force of Niagara Falls scooped out the Delta. It flattened almost a million homes, drowning twenty-seven thousand square miles, sometimes in up to thirty feet of water, and the water remained for four months.”

That’s some flood and this is some story. Dixie Clay tells her story (all written in third person limited narration) of meeting Jesse Holliver when she was twelve. He came once a year to buy furs, and when she was sixteen, they married. He brought her to Hobnob, Mississippi to live.

He didn’t tell her he was a bootlegger, but as his husbandly skills deteriorated, she began exploring and found the still. From that point, they were more business partners than lovers with Dixie doing the moonshining. Dixie did have a baby who died young, but after that she ran the stills. She never got over the loss of her baby.

Jesse spent the money and sold the moonshine. What he never did was care for Dixie in any way. So when Ted Ingersoll showed up at her door with a baby needing a mother, she didn’t think twice about taking the baby boy. And giving him all the love she hadn’t been able to shower on her dead infant.

Ted Ingersoll tells his story in alternating chapters. He was an orphan and grew up in an orphanage. That’s why when he and his partner found a baby whose parents had been killed, he couldn’t leave it at an orphanage. When he left the baby with Dixie Clay, he certainly didn’t know that her husband was the bootlegger they had been searching for.

Franklin and Fennelly create characters with depth and emotion, characters the reader will like — their strengths and their foibles. They are not one-dimensional, but rather real people with real faults that they think about and, at times, regret.

The authors write lovely metaphors that the reader will reread — just to savor the beautiful language and juxtaposition of words:

“He arrived at Hobnob at around seven and though the shops should be closed, the square was clustered with black raincoats, like a murder of crows, flapping and gesturing, exclamations, ejaculations…”

And when the men were watching the levees on the Mississippi in the bitter, damp cold night, “So sharp, the wind. So cold, the foam flicked from the fingertips of waves.”

The book is filled with evocative descriptions of life in rural America during Prohibition, that unsettling time of flooding, poverty, and huge, horrific racial prejudice.

This is a book to think about long after the last page is turned and to reread and to discuss with others. It’s a book to share. I plan to.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, William Morrow, for review purposes.