Red Grass River: A Legend

Written by James Carlos Blake
Review by Steve Lewis

John Ashley’s gang was mostly a family affair, a notorious crew of moonshiners, bootleggers and natural-born outlaws, thriving in the Florida Everglades shortly before World War I and into the Prohibition era. Old Joe Ashley was the father of the clan, but this is John’s story.

Ruthless and charming, John Ashley cut a fine figure in Florida folklore, killing and robbing and consummately charming the ladies. Opposing him, on the side of the law, are the Bakers, first Sheriff George Baker, then his son Bobby, once John Ashley’s friend, but no more.

For the first 200 pages or so, this is a grand updated version of the old pulp fiction yarns of racketeers and gangsters and cops and thieves. Or make that Pulp Fiction, the movie, for thisis far more violent and sexually explicit than was ever allowed in print, back in the 20s and 30s. Blake is an excellent writer, and he truly makes life in the swampy Everglades come to (shall we say) life.

But the story of the Ashleys is based on real events and real people, and unfortunately Blake is restricted (more or less) to the facts, and the facts, let’s face it, eventually become repetitive, wearisome, and leading to only one final conclusion — and with almost half the book left to go.

Or, perhaps the problem is that there is nothing to admire in any of the characters, perhaps fascinating on the surface for a short while, but the dazzle soon disappears. John Ashley is nothing more than another cheap hoodlum. Bobby Baker, who later also became sheriff, is (on the other hand) vulgar and sadistic, hardly a man who would ever be remembered, except for his incessant vendetta against the Ashleys.

A bawdy, violent tale, all in all, well-written, but only marginally entertaining.