A debut historical novel tells the story of a 19th-century doctor’s adventures in the otherworldly Okefenokee Swamp.
The year is 1885. Recently a resident intern at the Florida State Hospital (the “Asylum for the Insane”), Dr. Ben Bouvier arrives in Waycross, Georgia, to start a private medical practice in what he hopes will be a much more peaceful environment. It turns out to be anything but: After he moves into the town’s haunted house, Ben soon discovers a dying girl left on his front porch for medical treatment. Ben can’t save her, and when the town discovers her body the next day, Ben is suspected of murdering her. Chased out of Waycross by a literal lynch mob, Ben flees into the nearby Okefenokee Swamp. After a snakebite and a broken arm from a run-in with an alligator, Ben is rescued by Hattie, the witchy matriarch of a hidden swamp community. The inhabitants of star-shaped Heks Island are descended from runaway slaves and Army deserters, and they still welcome outcasts in need of a home. “And so we found ourselves a village,” goes their rhyme. “This bunch of castaways. / For mankind cast us off, and we survived / And came to stay.” So begins Ben’s yearslong adventures among the hidden worlds of the Okefenokee, which will take him to places he never could have expected. In this series opener, Harris writes in a detailed, slithering prose that captures the sinister magic of his romanticized vision of the Old South: “The wind’s fury had abated just after noon but pockets of small gusts still complained here and there, with short needle-like blasts of rain for a few seconds at a time, then dampish calm…until the next gust raced down a streambed or chased around a tree.” The book will likely divide readers based on their storytelling preferences. Some will bemoan the episodic structure, the moseying plot, and Hattie’s initially charming but quickly annoying nursery rhyme–style intrusions. But those entranced by the author’s finely crafted mood and setting will look forward to the sequel.
An intriguing but meandering swamp tale that incorporates shades of Southern gothic and fantasy.