The Marsh Queen

The Marsh Queen

by Virginia Hartman
The Marsh Queen

The Marsh Queen

by Virginia Hartman


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For fans of Where the Crawdads Sing, this “marvelous debut” (Alice McDermott, National Book Award–winning author of The Ninth Hour) follows a Washington, DC, artist as she faces her past and the secrets held in the waters of Florida’s lush swamps and wetlands.

Loni Murrow is an accomplished bird artist at the Smithsonian who loves her job. But when she receives a call from her younger brother summoning her back home to help their obstinate mother recover after an accident, Loni’s neat, contained life in Washington, DC, is thrown into chaos, and she finds herself exactly where she does not want to be.

Going through her mother’s things, Loni uncovers scraps and snippets of a time in her life she would prefer to forget—a childhood marked by her father Boyd’s death by drowning. When Loni comes across a single, cryptic note from a stranger—“There are some things I have to tell you about Boyd’s death”—she begins a dangerous quest to discover the truth, all the while struggling to reconnect with her mother and reconcile with her brother and his wife. To make matters worse, she meets a man whose attractive simple charm threatens to pull her back towards everything she’s worked to escape.

Torn between worlds—her professional accomplishments in Washington, and the small town of her childhood—Loni must decide whether to delve beneath the surface into murky half-truths and avenge the past or bury it, once and for all. “Fans of Delia Owens and Lauren Groff will find this a wonderful and absorbing read” (Suzanne Feldman, author of Sisters of the Great War).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982171612
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: 04/25/2023
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 423,075
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Virginia Hartman has an MFA in creative writing from American University and is on the faculty at George Washington University. Her stories have been shortlisted for the New Letters Awards and the Dana Awards. The Marsh Queen is her first novel. Find out more at

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1 1
If I were a different person, I could move forward and never look back, never try to fathom the forces that shaped me for the worse. But there are times when a fog rolls in, slow as dusk, beginning with a nodule of regret. I should have, why didn’t I, if only. I replay the day my father left us for good, the sun showing orange through the live oak, him pacing at the bottom of the porch steps, twelve-year-old me looking down with my baby brother, Philip, on one hip. I winced as I gently extracted a strand of my dark brown hair from his doughy little grasp.

Daddy bounced his feet on the bottom step and squinted up. “Look, darlin’. Miss Joleen next door can help your mama with the baby. So how’s about it, Loni Mae? You comin’ with me?”

My dad hadn’t gone fishing in months. But he’d grown restless, knocking into furniture and slamming the screen door. There was a thrumming in the house like the wind before a storm.

That day, my mother said, “Boyd, go on! You’re pacing the house like a caged animal.”

I’d have given almost anything to be out fishing in the swamp with him, to draw every creature I saw, to watch and listen as before. But how could I? I had to stay. Now that Philip was here, I served a purpose in my house. I held him while my mother talked on the phone, while she rested or did housework. I knew how to make him laugh those hiccupy laughs. He was my after-school activity, my weekend amusement, my part-time job. My mother no longer shook her head at my hopelessness, nor raised her eyes to heaven.

Daddy turned, and his boots crunched gravel. He retrieved his fishing pole and tackle from the garage. I put the tip of my braid in my mouth and sucked it to a fine point as he walked out to the end of the dock, his khaki vest sagging with lead weights and lures, the tackle box a drag on his left arm. He turned and looked back for a minute, tilting his head so his face caught the light. I put my hand up to wave, but a shaft of sun was in his eyes, and he didn’t see. He swiveled back toward the jon boat, stepped in, and he was gone.

He could have slept at the fishing camp, that faded two-room cabin that stuck out over a muddy bank, or he might have gone on patrol right after his swamp time. But on Monday morning, his Fish & Game uniform still hung in the closet at home, pressed and waiting.

Around three, my dad’s boss stopped over. Captain Chappelle was tall and fit in his khaki uniform, his boots clunking up the porch steps. My mother was out the door before he’d reached the top stair.

“Hello, Ruth. Just came by to see if Boyd was sick or what.”

My mother turned to me. “Go on, Loni. Get to your chores.” Two vertical lines between her eyebrows told me not to argue.

I couldn’t hear what they said, though from the kitchen I strained to make words from the low tones in the Florida room. I wiped the last dish and heard Captain Chappelle’s truck kicking up gravel in the driveway.

The weather turned cool that night, sweatshirt weather, and still Daddy didn’t return. Long after I’d gone to bed, I heard voices and went to the top of the stairs.

“I shoulda seen it, Ruth.” It was a man’s voice—Captain Chappelle. The Florida room’s square panes of glass would be black now, the marsh invisible behind them. The darkened banister glowed with the light from downstairs, and Captain Chappelle’s voice rippled with a watery sound. “Boyd hadn’t been himself lately. I just never thought he’d go and—”

“No,” my mother said.

“Had he been acting strangely around home? Depressed? Because these last few weeks—”

“No,” she said louder.

Captain Chappelle’s voice dropped to a murmur, but words floated up to me. Drowned... intentional... weighted down...

My mother kept repeating, “No.”

“We’ll fix it up, Ruth. Boating accidents happen every day.”

“Not to my Boyd.”

At the funeral home, I stepped away from the varnished wood box and listened.

Such a terrible accident.

What a shame.

It could happen to anybody, out in a boat.

You just never know when it’s your time.

So it was an accident. Those other words, floating up along the staircase, had just been a bad dream.

After the funeral, my mother and I took Philip home and we didn’t talk about Daddy. If we didn’t speak his name, maybe we could erase the knowledge that he’d never come back.

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