Book Review: The Marsh Queen by Virginia Hartman
Loni Mae Murrow is happy in her job as a bird artist for the Smithsonian up in the nation’s capital. When she gets an urgent message from Philip, her younger brother by a dozen years, to come home for a few weeks, she isn’t thrilled she’ll have to leave the comforts of DC in order to return to the small Florida town where she grew up. The summons is especially inconvenient given the budget cuts that threaten her job, but she knows she has to head south in order to finally face up to the demons of her past.
One of those demons is her mother Ruth, who seems to have developed early onset dementia. Philip and his wife Tammy want to put Ruth in a nursing home, and need Loni to come help clean out the Murrow family home. Loni has long been at odds with Tammy, a hairdresser whom she views as the opportunistic vixen who sunk her claws into young Philip, cementing their marriage with two small children and irrevocably tethering her accountant husband to their small town. At least Loni enjoys the company of Heather and Bobby, her niece and nephew, whom she dotes on and is always willing to help out with while their parents work.
But not even the balm of their company can assuage the pain Loni feels in trying to grapple with her cold and casually cruel mother. Cleaning her childhood home unearths painful memories, but also a new hope that Loni might be able to use what she finds to finally connect with the green-thumbed Ruth:
Calendula. Didn’t I see that in my mother’s GARDEN journal? I’m trying not to trespass, but what if I could make a connection between this copy of Gerald’s Herbal she consulted and her own handwritten notes? It might help me get at the essence of her. Like the marginalia in Grandpa Tad’s bird books that show me his interactions with his environment, maybe I could consider Ruth’s little book a natural history artifact.
It’s Philip, however, who opens the biggest can of worms when he tells Loni he wants to press the state about the pension Ruth should be receiving as the widow of a Fish & Game officer who died while on duty. Boyd Murrow drowned in the swamp when Philip was still a toddler, and Loni has spent her entire life since then protecting her little brother from the truth of their father’s suicide. Boyd’s colleagues in Fish & Game helped perpetuate the lie, but Loni knows it won’t stand up to the scrutiny of the state’s auditors should Philip try to claim the money he thinks they’re owed.
As Loni scrambles to keep her beloved baby brother in the dark, she begins to realize perhaps it was her own perspective that’s been skewed. At the age of twelve, she’d been so devastated by her loving father’s loss and so guilt-stricken at her own role in it, she didn’t think to question the story she was told about his demise. Two dozen years on, though, she’s starting to see the gaps in the narrative. Will her quest to finally uncover the truth put not only herself but also the ones she loves in mortal danger, whether from threats human or otherwise?
The flora and fauna of panhandle Florida play a prominent role in the proceedings, especially in their interactions, willing or unwilling, with the humans around them. Virginia Hartman has an excellent eye for the natural world and the myriad roles people play in its display, as in this mainstay of the Florida tourist experience:
It’s real show biz—the strong man comes out and flexes his muscles, then taunts an adolescent alligator with something like a mop handle. The gator opens its mouth wide.
Of course, the guy doesn’t bait it enough to provoke the big, scary harrumph a gator makes when it really feels threatened, expanding its chest and expelling all the air in a loud, sudden rumble. I was kind of hoping for that, actually, the sound that surely inspired stories of fire-breathing dragons. It means, Take one step closer and you’re food. I mean, if you plan to exploit an animal, you might as well put yourself in real peril.
Loni’s absorption in the nature of her home state, and particularly her sketching expeditions as she struggles to keep her job, were one of the highlights of this slow-burn thriller for me. I wasn’t as much a fan of the truly bizarre reason for her fractured relationship with her mother—I’m never a fan of heroines internalizing blame for things outside of their control—but did appreciate how Loni’s eyes were opened to how judgmental she herself could be, particularly in regard to Tammy. Hectic and immersive, The Marsh Queen is a love letter not only to the healing of family ties, but also to the natural beauty of the Sunshine State.