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THE MARSH QUEEN
by Virginia Hartman
Gallery Books, September 2022
384 pages
$27.99
ISBN: 198217160X


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Nancy Pearl has famously categorized reading choices as being driven by an interest in plot, character, setting, or language. In Virginia Hartman's debut novel, several choices could lead to the same book: an elegantly-written love letter to the mangrove swamps of the Florida panhandle and the people who live there as well as a deep exploration of troubled family relationships. The plot's pretty good, too.

Loni Murrow has a satisfying job, making scientific illustrations of birds for the Smithsonian Institution, crafting lifelike images based on the museum collection, so she's reluctant to go home to the small town in Florida's panhandle where she grew up when her younger brother calls. It's important, he tells her. Their mother has had to move into assisted living and their childhood home has to be cleared out. She takes family leave but is sure she will only last a couple of weeks. She has a difficult relationship with her prickly mother, and she has never reconciled herself to her father's death by suicide.

Once there, however, it's clear her mother is suffering from advanced dementia and the house, stuffed with memories, has to be cleared out quickly. It's difficult, though, as every item conjures up painful memories, and her brother and sister-in-law push her to get the job done quickly so a renter can move in. Loni paces herself by taking on a side job for an old friend, drawing birds for a local museum, and renting a canoe to paddle through the hidden channels around the town, just as she had done with her father. Gradually, through interactions with townsfolk and questions her brother raises, she begins to reexamine the circumstances of the supposed suicide that left her bereft.

Hartman takes her time developing the family relationships and filling in the gaps as Loni begins to understand what caused her mother to be so distant and to uncover the circumstances that led to her father's death. The plot, which takes a backseat to character development and setting, is nevertheless present, running through the story like the underground streams beneath the swamp's surface, not entirely visible but sometimes bubbling to the surface with bursts of energy.

Altogether, the author has done an excellent job of balancing the elements of a story, with the added delight of giving readers the chance to watch as an artist picks up her brushes to create lifelike renderings of birds in all their feathered glory.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, May 2022

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