Country Noir: The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly

It is rare that a book is considerate enough to explain itself in one pithy paragraph.  It is ever rarer for it to be appropriate to start a review by quoting the last paragraph of a book.  But both are true for The Tilted World.

This story is a story with murder and moonshine, sandbagging and saboteurs, dynamite and deluge.  A ruthless husband, a troubled uncle, a dangerous flapper, a loyal partner.  A woman, married to the wrong husband, who died a little every day.  A man who felt invisible.

But most of all, this is a love story.  This is the story of how we became a family.

The Tilted World is set against the backdrop of a very real event: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history—maybe THE worst.  The official toll of 313 dead is laughable.  The sheer scale of the land covered in the flooding boggles the mind.  It was a hugely consequential event—it wasn’t just the lives and livelihood destroyed.  It tarnished Coolidge’s presidency and changed how presidents reacted to natural disasters; it helped elect Herbert Hoover president and spur a decades-long shift in Black voters away from the Republican party; it physically changed the Mississippi river and was a catalyst for the Great Migration of African-Americans from rural Mississippi and other southern states to northern cities.  But the people were involved were too poor, too black,[1] and too far from the east coast establishment to be treated like they matter, then and now.

The history provides foreshadowing for Franklin and Fennelly.  We know that—no matter what anyone does to attempt to stop it—the floodwaters are coming, and their coming will be biblical.  The suspense is layered onto every movement and action until it happens.  And when it does?  I will just say that Franklin and Fennelly do not disappoint.  Those chapters are some of the most gripping that I have read in quite some time.

The catalyst for the plot is two federal revenuers gone missing.  Herbert Hoover personally dispatches two of the best revenuers in the country—Ham and Ingersoll—to investigate.  Their investigation will quickly take them into the orbit of moonshiner Jesse and his moonshining wife—the delightfully named Dixie Clay.  An almost immediate complication arises when a senseless act of violence leaves Ham and Ingersoll in the temporary custody of a newly orphaned baby boy.

Ham and Jess are both big, charismatic characters, but it is Ingersoll and Dixie Clay who are at the heart of the novel.  And it is a good thing that they are.  Ham and Jesse work better as non-POV characters—they don’t come off as very introspective.  Ingersoll and Dixie Clay, on the other hand, bear the weight of past pain too heavily to not be.  For Ingersoll, it is mostly his orphan background.  For Dixie Clay, it is being trapped with a controlling, philandering husband and, worse, so much worse, the death of their baby boy.

The big flood set piece is the high point of the book.  Ingersoll and Dixie Clay are richly drawn dual protagonists.  Ham provides some fun, and Jesse is an effective villain, easy to hate but hard to dismiss.  The Tilted World can be fairly labeled country noir, I think, but it draws fruitfully from romance and historical fiction.

It is one thing, really, that makes The Tilted World a 4-star book instead of a 5-star book.  The flood interferes with this, but too little happens due to the actions of the protagonists.  Neither is a passive spectator to the story, by a longshot, but there are a handful of key moments late in the book where the protagonists don’t drive things with their actions, or where things happen around the protagonists without them affecting them.

4 of 5 Stars.


[1] All of the significant characters in The Tilted World are white, but the casual cruelty toward African-Americans that would lead to so much suffering is readily apparent.

One thought on “Country Noir: The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly

  1. Pingback: March 2021 Month-in-Review | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

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