Wakulla Springs, by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (Hugo Nom)
Posted July 25, 2014on:
The story follows three generations of an African American family in Florida over the course of about 30 thirty years. While I was very satisfied with the complexity of the characterizations and the historically accurate details put into the narrative, the story itself seemed oddly lacking in speculative elements.
Starting in 1937, we meet Mayola, who at fifteen is interested in attending Texas A&M, she reads all summer and saves her nickels so she can reach her dream. She gets a job as a maid at an all white resort at Wakulla Springs. It pays so well, she’ll have her college funding in no time. The springs are natural, obviously, but since it’s private property, only white people are allowed to swim there. They are filming a Tarzan movie, and Mayola inadvertently spies on the movie folks while sitting at her favorite shady lunch spot. she knows all about Tarzan, she’s already read all the books. The star, Johnny Weissmuller, had been an olympic swimmer. This acting crap pays the bills, but he’d rather be swimming. On a moonlit night, Mayola and Johnny go swimming together. She’s terrified of losing her job, he’s desperate to go swimming with someone who can keep up with him. He doesn’t care that she’s a stranger, or a girl, or an employee of the hotel, or black. He’s only interested that she’s interested in swimming.
The next section follows Mayola’s teen aged son, Levi. It’s 1953. Mayola never made it to college, she’s still working at the hotel and trying to keep her son interested in his studies, so he can go to college. Another movie crew is at Wakulla Springs, this time filming The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Levi soon befriends the actor who plays the creature, Ricou Browning, who is more than a little impressed with Levi’s ability to swim underwater for minutes at a time. Levi becomes Ricou’s apprentice, of sorts. It’s better than sitting at home listening to Mayola go on about her boyfriend, Jimmy Lee, who has just returned from Korea.
The movie folks don’t seem to care what color someone’s skin is if you want to hang out with them (although they don’t seem to keen on actually hiring black actors), in their lands of make believe, they seem to crave authenticity from others. Speaking of authenticity, the authentic and accurately rampant racism is as heartbreaking as it is disgusting. Jimmy Lee has made a reservation at the hotel, and money in hand, chest covered in medals from the war, he is turned away, told he must stay elsewhere. He can die for his country, but he can’t stay in a damn hotel? Jimmy Lee has more to contend with than just finding a hotel room – Mayola is about to tell him the truth about Levi’s father, and why she still believes in all those local superstitions. And Levi overhears all of it.
The characters just kept getting more and more complex, and the writing kept drawing me into the next scene, and the next, and the next. Wakulla Springs gets gig points in the literature corner. But it’s still sitting at barely a half point in the speculative fiction corner.
The final section takes place in 1969 and follows a graduate student named Isbel. Her thesis is on Tarzan, imagined geography, and post colonialism, so of course she’s trying to track down as many people involved with the films as she can. The actors (and their agents) won’t give her the time of day, so all that’s left is Cheeta, the Chimp. he lives with his human in a trailer park in Encino California. The interview is embarrassing to say the least. And suddenly, completely out of the blue, either something jarringly speculative happens, or Isbel is hallucinating. I say jarringly, because even though the speculative thing says something that needs to be said about how Whites have historically treated Blacks and other minorities, it is so out of sync with the rest of the story that it doesn’t even fit. On the way back to the bus stop, Isbel meets a friendly guy who just happens to know all about those Tarzan movies because he grew up in Wakulla. It’s Levi, and he’s moved out to California to be in swimming movies. it never panned out, so he started his own business instead.
Bottom line – quality piece of historical fiction/ Americana literature with a focus on complex characterization and historical details. Not speculative fiction.