Their mission: to fight a large development along the tidal river where member Robbie-Lee grew up and where his mother, Dolores Simpson, a former stripper turned alligator hunter, still lives in a fishing shack.
The developer is Darryl Norwood, ex-husband of narrator Dora Witherspoon, who returns to Collier County to assist in the battle. An old land deed, the discovery that one of the key characters has been using a false name, and a dramatic court hearing are just a few of the highlights. Not to mention the reappearance of the Ghost of Seminole Joe.
Just as Hearth’s debut explored the ways we can find a sense of belonging in other people, her latest novel shows how closely tied each of us is to our sense of home—and the conflicts that can arise when our idea of that home becomes threatened. For Darryl, the river is a place ripe for development. For Dora, who’s known as the Turtle Lady because she rescues Everglades “snappers,” it’s a place that belongs to the critters. And for Dolores, former stripper, it’s a place to hide from the world…
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County
Dolores Simpson was a woman with a past. Now, depending on your age and where you’re from, you might interpret that in a number of ways. Let me assure you, however, that in the southern part of the United States of America, in a certain era, this could mean only one thing: man trouble.
This affliction spares few women. Even maiden ladies and great aunties—the ones who smile and nod on the porch, contentedly snappin’ peas—have stories of youthful turmoil and shattered dreams.
Dolores Simpson, unfortunately, had what my mama used to call serious man trouble. After leading a questionable life in Tampa, Dolores came back home one summer day in 1939 with all her worldly goods in a satchel under one arm and a brand-new baby boy in the other.
Yes, indeed. Serious man trouble.
Home, for Dolores, was one hundred and twenty miles south of Tampa in God’s forgotten paradise, Collier County, which is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the edge of the Great Everglades Swamp on the other. In those days, Radio Havana in Cuba was the only station that could be heard on the wireless and alligators outnumbered people by at least ten thousand to one.
Dolores’s destination was an abandoned fishing shack that once belonged to her grandfather. The shack sat on stilts on a tidal river which was so wild and forbidding that no one with an ounce of sense would try to live there. Still, it was all Dolores knew. She had failed at city life. She had failed at pretty much everything. The river was a place where she could protect her secrets and nurse her frustration with the world.
And there she stayed, alone except for the son she raised, for twenty-five years.
• • •
I, TOO, HAILED FROM COLLIER County, but instead of the river or swamps I was raised nearby in Naples, an itty-bitty town with a sandy strip of beach on the Gulf.
I barely knew Dolores Simpson. She was, shall we say, reclusive to an extreme. My only knowledge of her was that she had once been a stripper but now hunted alligators for a living. If she had been a man she would have been admired as a fearless frontiersman.
I wouldn’t have known even this much, nor would I have met her, if not for her son, Robbie-Lee. In the late summer of 1962, he and I became friends when we joined a new book club called the Collier County Women’s Literary Society. To its members, the club provided a sanctuary of sorts. Each of us was a misfit or outcast in town—in my case, because I had come back home after a divorce—but in the book club we discovered a place to belong.
It is one of the ironies of life that being part of a group can, in turn, lead you to find strength and independence as an individual. That’s exactly what happened to Robbie-Lee and me. After a year in the book club, we decided it was time to follow our dreams.
For Robbie-Lee, who loved the theater, the only place on his mind was New York City. He spoke endlessly of Broadway and was determined to get a job there, even if it meant sweeping sidewalks. Dolores, whose maternal instincts kicked in with a mighty roar at the idea of him leaving Collier County, objected to his planned departure, but lost the battle. Robbie-Lee caught a northbound bus on a steamy August morning in 1963.
At the same time Robbie-Lee went north I set off for Mississippi. I was hoping to learn more about my mother, who was born and raised in Jackson. Mama had died without telling me certain things. She never talked about her family, or how she met Daddy, or when and where they got married. All I know is they got hitched at a Methodist church because Mama insisted on having a bona fide preacher conduct the ceremony. They left Mississippi and came to Florida because Naples was Daddy’s hometown.
What I hoped to find was kinfolk. An aunt or uncle, perhaps. Or maybe a cousin. Since I was a small child, Mama and I had been on our own. It’s painful to say, but Daddy up and left us. At least I hoped to find out why my name is Eudora Welty Witherspoon—“Dora” for short. I could only guess that Eudora Welty, the famed Mississippi writer, had been a friend of Mama’s when she was growing up.
As I said, Mama never told me certain things.
I figured I’d go to Jackson for a few weeks or at most several months, but before I knew it I’d been away from Florida for a year. I had made more progress finding out about Mama and her people than I ever could have imagined. All I needed was a little more time to wrap things up and settle them properly. I had a job shelving books at the Jackson Library and I rented a small room in the home of a widow named Mrs. Sheba Conroy. I planned on giving proper notice—I didn’t want to leave anyone in the lurch—then head home to Naples.
And then the telegram came.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
It’s late summer 1964, and members of the Collier County Women’s Literary Society are shocked to learn that a large development is planned for the edge of the Everglades along a stretch of tidal river that is cherished by several members of the book club, including Dora Witherspoon, the book’s narrator. The development also threatens Gun Rack Village, a hideaway in the swamp where the residents include book club member Robbie-Lee Simpson’s mother, Dolores, a recluse whose life revolves around her small fishing shack.
In her first novel, Hearth explored what life was like for outsiders or “misfits” in a small, isolated community in southwest Florida in 1962. By forming a book club, they band together and thrive.
In this sequel, Hearth addresses how our identities are closely tied to the places we call home, and the stresses and conflicts which arise when great change is on the horizon. It is also a story of how long-held secrets, once revealed, can have unexpected consequences.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Secrets can shape our lives in peculiar ways. Do you believe that keeping a secret is sometimes necessary, or is revealing the truth always the right thing to do?
2. Book club member Priscilla is away from her baby, attending college in another part of the state so that she and her child will have a better future. This is an enormous sacrifice and Priscilla is conflicted. (Page 148) Do you think you she is making the right choice? If you were in her shoes, would you make the same decision?
3. Hearth explores the different treatment that an unmarried woman could expect to experience upon finding herself with an unplanned pregnancy. (Page 61) What did it mean for a poor teen compared to one who came from a family with resources?
4. The tension between Northern and Southern states is illuminated by the experiences of Jackie and her husband, Ted, who are from Boston. Jackie, in particular, makes many missteps while adjusting to life below the Mason-Dixon Line. Do you think the “North-South Divide” has improved or grown worse since the 1960s, and why?
5. In a post–9/11 era with Homeland Security, would Judd’s Cold War experiments with volatile chemicals and rockets be interpreted differently? Would Ted be allowed to privately settle the matter with his son? How have both political views and parental roles changed in fifty years?
6. Were there any historical facts about Florida that surprised you? Were you aware that Florida was a Confederate state during the Civil War and that the KKK was very active in the state into the 1960s?
7. Society tends to judge women like Dolores very harshly. Often, a stripper or “exotic dancer” is viewed as a simplistic, stereotypical character. Hearth, however, shows Dolores as a complex human being, an overlooked or “invisible” person worthy of our attention. Should Dolores’s past life be considered in court as a way of judging the veracity of her testimony?
8. There are several ardent fans of the actress Elizabeth Taylor in the book. Are you a “Liz” fan? Have you ever watched any of her movies? Which of her movie roles was your favorite? Can you name an actress on a par with her today in terms of influence and iconic stature?
9. The Everglades region could be said to be a main character of the novel. Did the book change the way you “see” that part of the country?
10. Throughout history there have been many debates over the idea that real estate actually can be owned. At various times and places real estate was owned: by individuals, by corporations, by kings, in common, or by the state. Some view real estate as entirely owned by an individual who has the right to preserve, develop or destroy it (and whatever lives on it.) Some see real estate as being held in trust for future generations, regardless of who currently owns it. This debate is woven into the fabric of the book. As you read it, where in the debate did you find yourself to be?
11. How should society decide whether to allow development of places like the Everglades? Does the kind of development change the equation? How much economic benefit does there need to be to outweigh individual property rights versus ecological benefits, such as oxygen production, water conservation, and species protection?
12. Some people (like Jackie) welcome change. Others (like Dora) fear it. Which do you think describes you?
13. Seminole Joe is Collier County’s bogeyman. The concept of a ghost who seeks revenge is commonplace in many cultures. Can you think of an example of a famous bogeyman? Did your hometown have a bogeyman? What was he called?
14. Jackie creates confusion by wearing mourning clothes for an unusual reason. Were you aware of the strict societal rules about wearing black, and for how long, after a death? What was expected of you during that time in the culture in which you grew up? How has that changed today?
15. Dora says, “I got to thinking how strange it is to be alive in this world. It’s not like anyone asks to be born; you just arrive whether you like it or not. You’ve got no say whatsoever in who your parents are.” (Page 273) How much of our lives is a result of circumstances over which we have no control? Does destiny, or free will, determine our lives?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Visit Amy Hill Hearth’s website at www.amyhillhearth.com to learn more about the author and to read her essay “Why I Write.” Contact her through the link on her website and invite her to “Skype” or “Facetime” with your book club.
2. Play some of the music mentioned in the novel, including “Another Saturday Night” (Sam Cooke), “Where Did Our Love Go?” (The Supremes), “The House of the Rising Sun” (Eric Burdon/The Animals), “Everybody Loves Somebody” (Dean Martin), “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (The Beatles), “Oh, Pretty Woman” (Ray Orbison), and “You Don’t Own Me” (Lesley Gore).
3. Prepare and share food and drink mentioned in the novel, such as Jell-O wine, pineapple upside-down cake, Collier County cheese grits, Mrs. Bailey White’s Died and Gone to Heaven Cake, and Boston Coolers. Visit www.amyhillhearth.com for recipes!
4. Pick one of the books that the Collier County Literary Society reads (or plans to read) in the sequel, such as To the Lighthouse, Cross Creek, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, and A Moveable Feast.
5. Dora Witherspoon talks to her pet snapping turtles. Dolores Simpson chats with a heron she calls Peggy Sue. Have you ever found yourself talking to “critters” as if they were human? Have you ever given a wild creature a name?