BOOK BEAT Naples Sun Times September 20-26, 2006
by Philip K. Jason
He gave up on the first book and threw it away. The second, he held onto and is now revising. The third time is a charm, and so is The Bucket Flower, the riveting first published novel by Donald Robert Wilson.
Wilson, a Navy veteran of the last stages of WWII, has been a life-long educator – but first he was a student. He received a B.A., M.A., and Sixth-year Certificate in Education from the University of Connecticut, and he took additional coursework at Central Connecticut State, Bridgewater State, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the University of New Hampshire and the University of Singapore. His career as schoolteacher (eighteen years) and principal (twenty-four years) spread over schools in three New England states. A Neapolitan since 1994, Wilson has now turned author – and with astounding results.
The Bucket Flower, from Pineapple Press, is a skilled and thoroughly engaging effort. No workshops, no writing groups – but plenty of inspiration, hard work, and the loving criticism of two daughters and a proofreading wife. Before he told me, I guessed that Wilson must have taught English and Social Studies. His command of language, structure, and style, and his insight into social and economic classes serve him well in this venture. Like his main character, Wilson has a love of research. And like any successful fiction writer, he can fashion from the discovered facts a fully imagined world into which readers can enter with full confidence and trust. Two years of research, including Wilson’s own first-hand Everglades explorations and copious reading, have paid off handsomely.
Young, intelligent, and somewhat rebellious, Elizabeth Sprague could be seen as coddled. The child of an aggressive and somewhat brutish Boston businessman whose wife dreams of acceptance in the highest circles of society, Elizabeth has received a college education; has a proper young lady’s wardrobe, manners, silky hair, and soft skin; and has been insulated from the worst that life has to offer. Or has she? Daring to make a career for herself as a professional woman, she finds her father capable only of belittling her seemingly outlandish and foolish goals. Elizabeth’s timid mother can’t stand up to the overbearing head of the household. A good match and motherhood are all that will satisfy her parents. And the match her father has in mind, at bottom a business deal, is abhorrent to this determined young lady. By the way, this is the 1890s and proper young women do as they’re told.
But not Elizabeth Sprague, who has decided to earn a master’s degree in botany by performing trailblazing research in the primeval Florida Everglades – largely unknown territory. A sympathetic aunt gives Elizabeth support, while Mr. Sprague does all he can to undermine his daughter’s efforts – including blocking her access to an inheritance. Elizabeth sets forth on her adventure, and with her the reader travels through Florida at a time when it was mostly a threatening wilderness and a refuge for all kinds of outlaws and other social scum. Elizabeth’s travels are nothing like what we think of as traveling today.
Donald Robert Wilson has drawn an attractive central character and a host of menacing villains in this fine first novel. But for this reader, the real hero of the novel is the setting, and the major accomplishment of the author is the splendid, detailed evocation of a gorgeous yet menacing region at a time long before highways, burgeoning residential communities, or even agri-business. This means, of course, that the swampy place – and the creatures that inhabit it – is also the overarching villain. Murky waters, dense thickets, alligators, snakes, mosquitoes, and storms do as much to thwart Elizabeth as do the ruthless members of the human species whom she meets along the way.
Often without money and food, and now and again just about without clothing, fair Elizabeth has to dig deep inside to find what strength resides in her essential self. That Donald Robert Wilson, a guy about to turn seventy-nine, can step into the mind and emotions of a young woman living well over a century ago – and do so convincingly – is one of the miracles of what the Romantic poets called the sympathetic imagination. Standing at Elizabeth’s shoulder as she sketches Everglades flora and takes her thesis notes – ears alive to threatening swampland sounds – is an experience every reader will enjoy. Does Elizabeth achieve her goals, survive her encounter with the figure called the Swamp Ape, reconcile with her parents? Reader, I leave it to you to answer these questions for yourself.
Wilson’s fascination with the 1890s, one factor that led him to write The Bucket Flower, is the driving force behind his recently-completed manuscript set during the Spanish-American War. The Counterfeit Correspondent is looking for a home, and I hope it finds one soon. Keep in touch with this fine author at donaldrwilson.com.
Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club. Send him your book news at firstname.lastname@example.org.