The first images that come to mind about Mississippi weather are usually ones that conjure sweat out of our pores just thinking about the hot and hottest of July and August. Next are probably the historic hurricanes and swooping spring tornadoes that render us paralyzed by fear. After spring and summer, we can usually just lean back and be glad autumn and football have arrived. Yet there was the devastating ice storm of 1994 that plunged Oxford, Ms, into a finger and toe freezing no man’s land. That is the major setting of Lisa Howorth’s entertaining and newly released novel Flying Shoes.
Mary Byrd Thornton is our middle-aged protagonist mother of two, wife of a respected Oxonian gallery owner Charles Thornton, and lover of her neglected garden spilling onto her porch. She can spout off the names of growing things like any master gardener, is an intelligent woman whose musings range from wittily described people and places living in Oxford all the way to Richmond, Virginia, where she had attended William and Mary. While there, she immersed herself in its history and a particular diary written by one of Charles’ ancestors. Her story is dotted with references to significant events in Mississippi, too, ranging from the University Greys to politics to racism. She’s a woman whose friends are all male, she’s spunky, edgy, sarcastic and deeply caring, especially toward her children. She’s the kind of woman who can “play, drink and clean the bathroom sink” (thank you, Marie Lambert, these lyrics from your album Platinum). All that, and she’s tried to bury a terribly sad event in her life.
She has enough sass, wit and psychological distance from Oxford, Mississippi, to poke fun at her university home town where “its smattering of BMWs and Mercedes that belonged to new people- those who had recently moved in from Memphis or Jackson or the Delta, in search of the town’s crime-free, arty, sports-possessed, boozy barbecued college-town life; where white people were enlightened but still in charge.”
The story begins with Mary Byrd alone in her kitchen, kids at school, husband at work, when she gets a telephone call that causes her to throw her everyday Corelle plate (she would never hurtle her good China into oblivion) across the room. It’s not supposed to break. It does. Then she gets another similarly disturbing call from a detective from Richmond, Virginia, claiming to have opened a cold case murder that occurred about 30 years ago. The murder victim was her own 8 year old step-brother, a brutal event that had profoundly wounded Mary Byrd and her family in spite of the fact that the ones still living are living, at least on the surface, rather successful lives.
After analyzing and almost rejecting the thought of opening those old wounds, Mary Byrd decides she will meet her mother and brother at the Richmond office. She knows the storm is coming and equips her family for power outages and her absence. Some of the great fun in this book is her description of the household: her two children who are sacred in her life, her husband who drifts mostly in the background and the 4 legged pets whose names and pecking order add a sort of kitchen sink humor to the book. There are the dogs, Puppy Sal and Quarter Pounder, and the cats, Mr. Yeti and Ignatius. And there is her son William who reads mythology before going to bed. His mother asks him one night which character he would like to be if he were a Greek god. William answers Mercury, who has wings attached to his sandals, enabling him to fly away from anything painful or scary. William, like her murdered brother, is just 8 years old.
Most people would take a plane or drive a car to get from Oxford to Richmond. But Mary Byrd, riddled with a fear of flying even Erica Jong couldn’t imagine, arranges a spot on a large truck, eight feet off the ground, with a man named Crowfoot Slay, the VI, otherwise known as Foote. Foote drives for Valentine Chickens and is a friend of a friend of Mary Byrd’s. He “believed in white supremacy, the right to bear arms, and the superiority of black women.” Our protagonist thinks a trip with Foote will help her keep her mind off her destination and the news there that could lead her into a profound desperation.
The trip to Richmond moves the story along as any journey would. But the real thickening agent and readability of the book is the host of characters that surround Mary Byrd and further define her. One such character not mentioned before is Jack Ernest- a wannabee writer living with his two elderly co-dependent aunts. Jack lusts after Mary Byrd while supplying her with the occasional Xanax. The more important journey though, for this reader is the internal journey Mary Byrd takes; the one of self-discovery and integration, where she confronts what has made her impulsive, fearful and edgy, the unbearable truth of things.
Mrs. Howorth has created a keen sense of place as Greg Iles has done in his books about Natchez. She has looked clearly at the racial situation still brewing in the south just as Kathryn Stockett does in The Help. Most of all though, she has shared an intimacy and vulnerability in Mary Byrd that is really a thinly veiled Lisa Howorth. That is a great act of courage. And the book works quite well without knowing that Ms. Howorth’s own young brother was murdered when they were children and that case was never solved. This is a highly readable, entertaining, and provocative book by a new novelist and it works because of its raw honesty and integrity.
This is Lisa’s first novel. She grew up in Washington, D.C., married Richard Howorth, former mayor of Oxford, where they settled down and grafted Square Books onto the Square, straight into the proud heart of Mississippi’s rich cultural history. Her essays have appeared in Gun and Garden magazine.