"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Wherever floods have raged in the history of literature, compelling stuff has often surfaced. “Flood Summer” (SMU Press, $24.95), a first novel by Trenton Lee Stewart, reveals an engaging epic told with real talent.
The novel is set in and around Hot Springs and some of the scenes come readily to mind for those who know Central Avenue, West Mountain and the Arlington Hotel. On the surface, the narrative seems to be heading toward a complicated love story. Underneath, however, dark secrets are carried along in this flood until the water recedes and they snag like water moccasins in the treetops.
The protagonist, Abe Pittenger, is a country boy who lives just outside Hot Springs in Locker Creek. The novel opens with a rite-of-passage trip to the beach for Abe and his friends that sets the tone of the novel. The boys leave during a deluge and Abe begins to realize that his future is as clear as a fogged windshield. After a few days at the beach, they return home only to find that the rain still hasn’t quit. The water starts rising along Bath House Row and Abe soon will be jerked into a whirlpool of life-changing events.
Early on, it’s clear that Abe has pretty much turned his personal sense of failure and despair into a vocation. He remains at odds with his distant and stern father and believes that he has failed several of his close friends. On top of that, he has blown his scholarship to Hendrix College and now works on a roofing crew.
To complicate matters, Abe falls for Marie Hamilton, a young woman whose tortured past has stunted her emotionally. After spending her teen years in a series of foster homes, she’s returned to Hot Springs to work in her dad’s bookstore. Marie soon steals Abe’s heart but doesn’t quite know what to do with it. She’s not the only one.
In the hands of Abe, love becomes just another elusive and slippery task. In fact, love careens around in this novel with a range of characters until the message is unavoidable. How does one get love? How does one give it? And what does one do in the meantime?
Stewart’s writing is a rich silt of language that readily captures the rhythms of small-town life. The dialogue helps move this novel along and reflects a genuine feel for rural people. Yet, there’s really nothing here that might box him in as a “regional” writer.
A native of Hot Springs, Stewart is a graduate of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where a lot of good writers get their start. He also is the author of “The Mysterious Benedict Society,” a children’s book that has been on recent national best-seller lists. He lives in Little Rock with his wife, Sarah Beth Estes, and two children.