By Connie Leinbach
A place with a spectacular landscape and colorful history is bound to attract writers of all stripes and Ocracoke certainly does that.
During the height of the pandemic, I decided to tackle several recently published books about the island that have come to our attention.
These were sent to us except for one I found in the Village Craftsmen, though they are not technically in the book business. The Observer receives many unsolicited books and can’t review them all. These are a sampling of the fiction.
When one reads about one’s place of residence, it’s often with a curious eye toward getting the geography, history and culture correct, but I’ve noticed with these and other fiction books on Ocracoke that some details typically get thrown aside in favor of artistic license.
That’s OK, and “Love, Judie Kate,” by J.T. Allen, gets a lot of the geography right. It’s about a May-December romance on Ocracoke during an Ocrafolk Festival.
Allen, who is a professor of religion, history and humanities, is one of the sound men for the annual festival. So, his description of the festival is spot on. Allen created fictional names for the band Molasses Creek and the stores and restaurants on the island, but then, suddenly, there’s the name of a real person on Ocracoke. Why this one when all of the other names are fictional?
The character of Judie Kate has some image/confidence issues as an adolescent and this book is about her journey and finding love.
The festival is the scene of Judie Kate’s coming of age on Ocracoke amid the threat of an over-the-top Christian fundamentalist young man obsessed with her and the skimpy “rompers” many of the young women on Ocracoke are, apparently indecorously, wearing. Oh, and there’s a rapist on Howard Street.
Two of the books feature hurricanes.
One is “The Clock Struck Midnight,” by Sandra Wells, in which a young woman decides to buy a bar on Ocracoke.
One night, when the “town hall clock” strikes midnight, she accidentally conjures up the ghost of Blackbeard, the pirate who was killed off Ocracoke in 1718. In this tale, Blackbeard is a business adviser, confidant, protector and babysitter.
Setting aside some chuckle-inducing phrases (such as the above-mentioned town clock), numerous typos (such as “chocked” for “choked),” comma splices and more, it’s a short, entertaining read and describes an island hurricane pretty well.
“Egret’s Cove,” a mystery by Douglass Quinn, finds the protagonist, Webb Sawyer, coming to Ocracoke in the off season to fish with an old friend, Blythe, but discovers that she is missing.
Eventually, he determines that Blythe was kidnapped, and he sets out in a hurricane to retrieve her.
Sawyer is a jaded sleuth who on Ocracoke seems to encounter mostly unattractive women of all ages to whom he refers as “girls.” One uncharitable description of a woman’s laugh: “It was like a cross between a howler monkey with laryngitis and a dying hyena.”
Quinn, of Elizabeth City, is the author of four other Webb Sawyer books and numerous other suspense, historical fiction and children’s books.
The Ocracoke book that really gripped me, however, is “Aphrodite’s Whisper,” a historical fiction by William Charles Furney.
Furney is the author of “Black Hearts, White Bones,” about women pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read. I haven’t read that one, but I will after reading this excellently crafted period piece about the famous surf men lifesavers of the Outer Banks, who were later folded into the U.S. Coast Guard.
There’s a harrowing but propitious shipwreck and encounters with the Wright brothers in the first days of aviation and World War I.
Furney has created strong characters and an engaging plot.
His main character, Caelyn Canady, a beautiful New Yorker who in 1903 finds herself accidentally on Ocracoke and the Outer Banks, is a strong heroine who presages the women’s movement.
His other characters were equally well drawn, though I must take a bit of an issue with one — an “old Black woman,” who, like the “magical Negroes” in some American films, assists the white characters with her prophetic visions.
Furney kept me guessing with his plot twists, although there was one reveal towards the end which wasn’t further explained, and had it been explored might have changed the whole story.
Furney also includes author’s notes at the end explaining some of his fact alterations in service of the story.
Nevertheless, this book kept me turning the pages and I missed these characters after I finished the book, which, for me, is the hallmark of a good read.