Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County

BOOK: Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County
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Praise for
Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society

“One can feel the immense joy of Amy Hill Hearth's engagement in her first novel. It radiates through every scene and through every page. Sometimes, an exceptional writer finds an exceptional premise, and the result is a truly exceptional book. Such is the case with
Miss Dreamsville
 . . . The writing is brilliant, especially the dialogue through which the characters are defined.”

Southern Literary Review

“Amy Hill Hearth's first novel is a charming and funny snapshot of life in a tiny Florida town in 1962. It's also a sweet-tart reminder that those good old days weren't so good for everybody.”

Tampa Bay Times

“Funny, insightful, poignant, and uplifting.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“You may already know Hearth's name—the former journalist wrote the nonfiction book
Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years,
which was a bestseller and play. Her fictional storytelling is just as captivating.”

The Durham (NC) Sun

“Throughout this engaging tale, which sweeps smoothly from humor to touching to horrifying—just as life does—the words of Hearth's 80-year-old narrator fall as true as a plumb line.”

The Berkshire Eagle

“Hearth's characters are instantly likeable and there for each other as they take bold chances . . . A book that rings with authenticity.”

The Daytona Beach News-Journal

“Hearth has done very well with her first work of fiction. The characters are endearing, and she has a good understanding of the American South in the 1960s. I recommend it.”

Historical Novel Society

“Amy Hill Hearth's delightful first novel is a rollicking, provocative tale about how reading and meeting others who are different can be the most subversive of acts.”

—Ruth Pennebaker, author of
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough

“Amy Hill Hearth honors and humanizes people and their wonderful diversities. She astutely weaves pertinent, factual histories into her debut novel. What a laudable book!”

—Camille O. Cosby, PhD, educator and producer

“Segregation, feminism, gays coming out, inter-racial dating, it's all in
Miss Dreamsville,
written as it happened in small towns everywhere. And wisdom; you could learn a lot about life from reading this book. Most of all, be daring, be friends, be true to
yourself. By the end, I cried and I must say, I wouldn't mind hearing more about each of the richly painted characters.”

—Patricia Harman, author of
The Midwife of Hope River

Miss Dreamsville
's cast of characters includes a postmistress, a librarian, a convicted murderer, a northern transplant, a lone African-American girl, and an even lonelier gay man, among others. Set in Naples in the early 1960s, its local color and plot will surprise Florida natives and visitors alike.”

—Enid Shomer, author of
The Twelve Rooms of the Nile

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In loving memory of my niece, Anna Katherine Hill (1980–2012)


olores 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
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.

•  •  •

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.


oor Mrs. Conroy, my landlady in Jackson. I can still picture her face when she saw the Western Union man through the glass panel of her front door. Even under the best of circumstances Mrs. Conroy was nervous as a rat terrier, and with the arrival of a telegram she was likely to need her fainting couch.

To her generation, a telegram was how they usually found out somebody had died, and even though the modern era had arrived and you could make a long-distance telephone call—especially to a city as large as Jackson—plenty of folks still relied on the Western Union man to deliver urgent news.

I couldn't believe it was for me. I'd never gotten a Western Union in my life and had hoped I never would. For a moment I was tempted to tear it up, unread, and toss it out the window right into Mrs. Conroy's Gulf Pride azalea bushes. But sooner or later, I knew I'd be outside on my hands and knees searching for the pieces and trying to put them back together. I'd have to know what it said.

Mrs. Conroy was so worked up I thought she was on the
verge of an apoplectic fit. She was quivering like Aunt Pittypat in
Gone with the Wind
when the Yankees were shelling Atlanta. “Well?” she shrieked, even before I could read it. “What does it

I didn't answer at first. Finally, with my voice all aquiver, I blurted out, “It's bad news.”

“I knew it!” Mrs. Conroy wailed. “Somebody died! Oh, Lord! Sweet Jesus . . .”

“Well, I don't know about that,” I said, trying to calm us both down. “It just says
something's wrong
. But it doesn't say what.”

“Let me see that,” she said, yanking it from my hands. “ ‘Big trouble. Come home now.' ” She read the words aloud then looked at me. “What does that mean?”

“I don't know,” I said.

“Oh, Lordy, Lordy.” Poor Mrs. Conroy was wringing her hands. I'd never actually seen anyone do that, but sure enough, that's what she was doing.

“Mrs. Conroy,” I tried to sound respectful, but firm. “Could you leave me alone for a moment so I can think? Just for a moment, please?”

She left reluctantly. I heard her moving pots and pans around in the kitchen. Then she began singing “The Old Rugged Cross,” which is a nice old hymn but not great background music when you're trying to figure out who sent a Western Union that upended your life and why.

The sender was none other than the stripper turned alligator-hunter herself, Dolores Simpson.

A horrible thought occurred to me: Maybe something had happened to her son, my friend Robbie-Lee. But he was still in New York City and had just written to me that he was well and happy.

One thing was for sure. Whatever was going on was very serious. If there was ever a woman who didn't rattle easy, it would be Dolores. If she said there was trouble, you can bet grandpa's pet buzzard it was the Gospel truth.

But what kind of trouble?

All of a sudden I wanted to go home. I
to go home. And I hated myself for staying away for a whole year, even though it had been a good year and I'd found out some things about Mama and her family that had turned my way of thinking upside down. But I had been fooling myself to think that nothing would change in Naples and that I could go back anytime I wanted and everything would be just as it was.

Most likely, someone had died, just as Mrs. Conroy feared. Since my social life had revolved around my book club, I went over the list of members in my head. Besides Robbie-Lee there was Jackie Hart, who had started the book club and was in good health as far as I knew. Jane Wisniewski, known to all as “Plain Jane,” was a poet who made a living writing sexy stories for women's magazines under the name Jocelyn Winston. She was in her late fifties and had never mentioned any health concerns. Priscilla Harmon, who at nineteen was the youngest member of our book club, was at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. Miss Lansbury, the librarian who helped us choose our book selections and kept the library trustees from interfering, had gone off to live with her kinfolk, a tribe of local Indians. And then there was Mrs. Bailey White, who, come to think of it, was quite elderly. Ten years older than God, as Mama would have said. But why wouldn't Dolores just say that in the telegram? “So-and-so died. Come home.”

BOOK: Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County
4.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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