A Muscogee woman and a World War I veteran try to save the soldier’s sister and brother-in-law, held against their will in a brutal turpentine camp in 1920s Florida.
Scott Hampton comes from New York to northern Florida to search for his missing sister, Sarah, and her husband, Franklin, who’d gone south for work only to be imprisoned in a turpentine camp run by the ruthless Captain Riggs. Also held there is Martha LongFoot, the daughter of a Muscogee woman and a slave, who grew up as Riggs’ sexual captive and now serves as the camp’s resident “Medicine Woman.” (Martha narrates half the story, describing life inside the camp, while the rest is told in the third person). Wimberley (Devil’s Slew, 2011, etc) does a nice job keeping up the suspense as Hampton searches for his relations, and those unfamiliar with the history of camps like these will find no shortage of fascinating—and horrifying—context: from how debtors (and others) were essentially enslaved in them to the particulars of how workers extract resin from pines for turpentine. But while readers may be new to the history here, they’ll likely find the characters more familiar, from the brave (and bland) leading man to a bevy of recognizable villains (an oily attorney, an underhanded judge, the sadistic Riggs, etc.). Wimberley’s most memorable creation is Martha, who endures a monstrous childhood—and is severely disfigured, for reasons readers will later learn—to become one of the camp’s savviest operators. But in highlighting Martha’s resilience, Wimberley comes a bit too close to buying into the "magical minority" trope, in which a person of color has almost otherworldly wisdom or skills. Indeed, she can “lift a man onto a mule,” shoot a squirrel square in the neck (so as not “to mess up the meat”), and cure various ailments, all while recounting her life in vivid prose. Ultimately, a more nuanced characterization would have better served the story—and the reader.
The sordid history of Florida’s turpentine camps is riveting; the characters less so.