South Moon Under

Screen Shot 2018-04-21 at 5.48.57 PM

Book Reviewed: South Moon Under

Author: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Publisher: Popular Classics Publishing

Copyright Date: 2012


Type: eBook - Kindle

Reviewed by: Yackman

Yackman’s Rating: 9 out of 10

My Review:  I recently took a multi-day trip on the Ocklawaha River, organized by Paddle Florida.  The upper Ocklawaha is still wild and free, a beautiful wilderness passing through state forest lands.  The lower river has been decimated, the result of (thankfully) unfinished work on the ill conceived Cross Florida Barge Canal.  A description of the devastation caused by the damming of the lower Ocklawaha and the clearing of eight thousand acres of Bald Cypress forest to create the useless Rodman Impoundment will have to await another writing.  After all this is supposed to be a book review.

In preparation for the trip, Paddle Florida recommended two books that would highlight the culture and history of the area.  The first was Marjorie Harris Carr: Defender of Florida’s Environment.  This book details Carr’s successful campaign to kill the Cross Florida Canal.  I have yet to read this book.  The second book and the one I am reviewing here is South Moon Under, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.  Rawlings is most notable for writing The YearlingSouth Moon Under is her first book, written in the early 1930’s.  The setting is the land around the Ocklawaha and St. Johns Rivers, the area we paddled through.  Time spent on the upper river gave the book a special richness grounded in reality.  I could see and feel many of the things written about because I’d had similar experiences.

The book centers on a poor rural Florida family, the Lantrys, homesteading on marginal land, surrounded on three sides by river: the Ocklawaha flowing north on the west side before it turns sharply East on the north side, finally flowing into the St. John which flowed northeast along the east side of the land.  The land was mostly swamp, scrub forest and high hammock.  The hammocks were the only parts of the land that were inhabitable.   

We meet Lantry (I don’t think his first name was ever given) as the book opens.  He has just moved his family onto a hammock in the scrub.  He’s a mysterious fellow, who like Ed Watson, in Killing Mister Watson, is on the run from the law, hiding out in plain sight in a remote corner of the country.  The year was about 1900.  Lantry has a nagging, unpleasant wife and five children; three boys, Thadius, Zeke and Abner, and two girls, Martha and Piety, Piety being the youngest and favored by her father.  

The story spans three generations with the focus passing from Lantry to Piety and then to her son, Lantry Jacklin, or Lant for short.  It is a great story and I still carry the characters around in my head.  Here’s a brief outline.  

In its following three generations of one poor rural Florida family, the book is similar to Patrick Smith’s book, A Land Remembered. However, A land Remembered is broader in scope and covers a greater period of Florida History than this book.

Beside the characters already mentioned, Martha’s daughter Kizzy becomes a critical character as does Clive, a young relative taken in by Piety, who later became Kizzy’s husband.  Kizzy and Lant are best friends and soul mates.  But Lant shows no romantic interest in her while Clive does.  Kizzy marries Clive who is lazy and always out of work.  After many years and three children Kizzy and Clive are depending on the generosity of friends and relatives to survive.  

It’s now Prohibition.  Lant and another man each have thriving business providing the local folks with high grade moonshine.  Clive, jealous and angry about Lant’s success but unwilling to work hard himself, tells Federal Agents about the stills.  The stills are destroyed and Clive is rewarded for the information.  This infuriates the community and Clive goes into hiding.  Sometime later, Lant feels he’s being stalked by someone.  He turns to see Clive with his rifle raised, pointing directly at him.  Lant fires one shot from the Winchester he is carrying and kills Clive.  He hides the body and avoids all contact with Kizzy. 

Piety is old by now and dying.  She calls for Kizzy who arrives with her three kids.  Kizzy attends to Piety until her death.  She turns to Lant and says that they are both alone now and should marry.  Lant, in his guilt, blurts out that he killed Clive.  Kizzy says that she suspected it, and the story ends there, somewhat unsatisfactorily.  

This outline doesn’t do the story justice, as it is almost a Shakespearian tragedy.  But beyond the outline, the tale is rich with interesting characters and details of poor, white Florida Cracker culture.  The hardest part for most readers is that much of the text is written in dialect.  Piety (correctly pronounced Pi-eh-tee) is pronounced Py-tee in the dialect.  “Hit” for it, “mought” for might, and many other changed words are seen.  And there are words used that refer to things I just can’t figure out.  Scaper, for instance is used in a variety of contexts, usually derogatory.  It’s exact meaning eludes me.

Probably the language I enjoyed the most came from a brain damaged character called Ramrod, a man with a clef pallet.  The author has him speak in dialect through his clef pallet distorted words - “Desus Chwist” for Jesus Christ for example.  I loved it.  But Cracker dialect isn’t for everybody.  I recommended Killing Mister Watson to my friend Alan.  Much of that book, set in a similar time period, is written in Cracker dialect.  He quit reading it because the dialect drove him to distraction.  

With the exception of the ending, I really liked this book.  It gives a glimpse into the lives of the poor people that settled the Florida wilderness, before air conditioning, mosquito control, and superhighways.  They were an extremely hardy bunch.

 © Don Yackel 2020