Dreams of Falling by Karen White Continues the Tradition of Stories Set in the US South
The US South has been immortalized in novels such as Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, and The Prince of Tides. More recently, stories like The Help, The Secret Life of Bees, and Cold Mountain continue this tradition. And now, there’s Dreams of Falling by Karen White, set in small town South Carolina where the past is respected and neighbours are like family.
Dreams of Falling is the story of three young women, Ceecee, Bitty, and Margaret, who pledge to be best friends forever and commit to their pledge by placing ribbons inside the trunk of an old tree in Georgetown, South Carolina. As time unfolds, a series of events—deaths, marriages, and a devastating fire—unravel that pledge and create haunting secrets that affect not only the women themselves but also their descendants.
What is it about southern stories—or for that matter, the South—that is so compelling to readers? Karen White wishes she could “jar whatever that ‘it’ factor is that makes the South compelling to so many readers.” For White, “it’s the memories of childhood visits to her grandmother’s house in Indianola, Mississippi” that she tries to recapture on the pages of her books. “There’s nothing like the sights, smells, and sounds of evening in the Deep South—all of which bring me back to my grandmother’s front porch when I was a young girl. Maybe it’s the heat that makes everything, including time, seem to march much more slowly, that readers seem to find so captivating.”
There’s a gentle rhythm to Dreams of Falling, a slow breathing in and out of the characters’ lives like the rise and fall of the coastal tides featured in the novel. Karen White transports her readers with beautiful descriptions: “I’d once known these waterways like the veins on my wrists, the curves and intersections altering only with the oncoming tide and returning when the water trickled back to the ocean … we passed through the black needlerush and spartina grass that rustled against the sides of the boat. We sped by tupelo trees and wide-hipped cypress draped with Spanish moss, cormorants preening on dead branches …”
Many novels feature secrets, some more devastating than others. In Dreams of Falling, Karen White reveals the central secret with tantalizing hints and clues that build and build to a final crescendo. Does the author believe everyone lives with secrets? “I do—although I’m certain that most are not as devastating as the secrets in the book (which is why I write fiction!). Not all secrets are bad, however. Unlike secrets to conceal an evil deed or important information from someone who needs to hear it, a secret to protect a loved one is (debatably) a forgivable sin.”
White interleaves past and present using multiple voices to tell a story featuring three generations of women and a secret that began in the 1950s. The consequences of that secret are still playing out sixty years later.
Intriguingly, one of the voices is that of an unconscious woman tugged back and forth between life and death. Ivy Lanier slips in and out of her body, at times floating around the hospital room observing those who’ve come to visit. What influenced her to include such a character? “Every since I read The Lovely Bones,” White said, “I’ve wanted to write a character who is a major player in the story but has no voice. I was intrigued by the concept, and knew that with all the secrets in this story, many known by Ivy, she would have to be the silent partner as the other characters figured things out by talking to her.” As the author says, this wasn’t an easy feat. Ivy is not allowed to interact with the other characters and “yet she knows all the answers to their questions” and has to allow those she loves, in particular her daughter Larkin, to figure the secret out for themselves.
Some might be surprised that the 1950s is considered historical fiction but for White, that time period seems “very far back in history” with different “social mores and attitudes” and distinctly different fashion rules. “For instance, men wore hats, but never indoors, and women also wore hats and gloves, a much more formal attitude of dressing for the public than today. It showed a level of respect to their neighbors and strangers on the street alike.” To evoke the time period, she drew on her mother’s stories of growing up in the fifties to inform her portrayal of the three gently bred Southern women in the book, “including an innocence regarding sex and procreation—something my mother and her sisters were largely ignorant of until their wedding nights. And the fact that the trip to Myrtle Beach in the book was unchaperoned was a Very Big Deal then—the assumption being that bad things would happen to unchaperoned and unmarried young women. Today, no one would blink.”
Here’s a small example: “Why, goodness, Ceecee, every properly brought up young woman knows it is simply tacky and ill-bred to call a gentleman.”
A delicious stew requires just the right blend of ingredients, carefully prepared and slowly simmered. Dreams of Falling is a delicious stew of memorable characters, superb prose, evocative settings both present and past, thoughtful insights, and a plot that slowly simmers its way to a surprising and satisfying ending.
About the contributor: M.K. (Mary) Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, Time and Regret was published by Lake Union. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her blog A Writer of History.