Though written by a man-woman-team, I am counting this book towards my 2014 Women of Genre Fiction Challenge – seeing as I’ve never read anything by Ellen Klages (nor Andy Duncan, for that matter). You can read this Hugo nominated novella for free at tor.com – head over there and read it now, while it’s hot outside.
Published by: Tor.com, 2013
Ebook: 139 pages
My rating: 8/10
First sentence: Wakulla Springs. A strange and unknown world, this secret treasure lies hidden in the jungle of northern Florida.
Wakulla Springs, in the deep jungle of the Florida panhandle, is the deepest submerged freshwater cave system in the world. In its unfathomable depths, a variety of curious creatures have left a record of their coming, of their struggle to survive, and of their eventual end. And that’s just the local human beings over the last seventy-five years. Then there are the prehistoric creatures…and, just maybe, something else.
Ranging from the late 1930s to the present day, “Wakulla Springs” is a tour de force of the human, the strange, and the miraculous.
“Wakulla Springs” was wonderful. That needs to be said before anything else. But I am still debating whether it qualifies as speculative fiction. There is no magic, unless you count the magic of film-making, there are no otherworldly monsters, unless you count costumed movie stars. But the atmosphere of the hot Florida air, the piney forests, the springs themselves, and what draws Mayola and Levi into the water, is so gripping that it brings a sort of magical feeling to the table.
The book is sectioned into several parts but for the sake of keeping this spoiler-free I’ll stick mostly to the first two. Mayola is a young black girl saving up money for college. She finds work in the Wakulla Springs Lodge – a whites-only hotel that pays their staff excellently – and through this summer job witnesses a movie crew shooting Tarzan. People of color aren’t allowed to swim in the springs but Mayola wants nothing more than to cool down in the still, clear water.
Needless to say, with a story set in the 1930s and a black protagonist, racial issues are front and center. But the authors handle them with a light touch and never the issues take over the plot. Mayola – and later Levi – has to face injustice on a daily basis and while I gasped at certain scenes, Mayola has grown up in that time and so doesn’t dwell on it too long.
The development thorughout the novella is wonderfully done. Not only does each character evolve, but since every part shows us a new generation of people living near or involved with Wakulla Springs, we get to follow how society’s views have changed. When Mayola thinks of swimming in the springs (secretly, at night) she is filled with fear at being caught, of losing her job. Levi, in the second part, knows fully well he isn’t allowed to swim there, but he does it anyway and doesn’t give it too much thought. When a black war veteran returns home, he fully expects to be treated like a hero regardless of his skin color. In yet another, later part, we follow a young black woman writing a paper for university – and the difference between her and Mayola’s dreams of saving up money and maybe, just maybe going to college is astounding. All of this is done without exposition. Through the characters we get a sense of time and political views. In a novella where racial discrimination happens all the time, the sudden lack thereof feels almost loud – in a good way, that is.
But the story is as much about the place as it is about the characters. Through Mayola and Levi, the readers get a glimpse of the local (and other) superstitions, traditions, and a feel for the time period the story is set in. The heat is almost tangible, the smell of the trees and the constant threat of alligators makes this an entirely engrossing read. I spent my Sunday afternoon with this book and the weather outside was just perfect. I’m sure this book is enjoyable when you read it in winter, but there is something about the sun on your face, sweat trickling down the back of your neck, and characters that are experiencing a similar kind of heat.
“Wakulla Springs” is, without a doubt, an excellent book. It is beautifully written, has engaging characters, and builds up such atmosphere that you can’t put it down. I was provided an ebook version of this novella in the Hugo Voter Packet so, naturally, I am considering how to rate it for the award. As much as I loved reading it, I fail to see the speculative fiction aspects of the story. It is a coming-of-age story, it’s about race and film-making, and women, and dreams, and very personal superstitions. But except for one little scene that can be explained away in a sentence or two, and pass as mainstream, and maybe the very last paragraph, there isn’t a single thing that qualifies it as fantasy or science fiction. I’m considering my votes well and will definitely rate this novella high. But simply because I feel it’s been classified as the wrong genre, it won’t make the top of my list. (It’s really not that hard to guess who gets my #1 novella vote…)
RATING: 8/10 – Excellent