See ’em. Feed ’em. And Live to Talk About It.

Posted: August 8, 2013 in World On The Edge


I am very grateful to Mike Sullivan, Moderator of Goodreads On The Southern Literary Trail, for ‘talking about’  my novel, A Hunger in the Heart.

In the Summer of 1959 we packed up our 1958 Oldsmobile.  It was my family’s first air-conditioned car.  It was a little square unit that sat under the dash that blew cool air through little round vents.

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With my grandparents in front and my mother and I in the backseat, we headed to the land of dreams, Florida.
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It was my first vacation.  It was magic.  I was seven.
I learned that there were such things as mermaids.

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I picked my first orange from a tree in a grove.  It was the best orange juice I ever tasted.

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The scariest place I ever saw was an alligator farm.  They were everywhere in concrete ponds.  They would look at you and open their jaws wide, showing those rows of tremendous teeth.  I hung on to the rails around the gator pits.  I would have hated to have ended my vacation as a snack.

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I suppose it was the beginning of a loss of innocence.  It happens in degrees.  In this case, the little box air-conditioner froze up on a regular basis.  My grandfather would turn it off and let it defrost.  The hot air would blast through the windows.  Afternoon thunderstorms caused us to roll up the windows and we would sweat until the magic box emitted a weak stream of cool air for a short time.
I have long ceased to believe in mermaids.  However, I still am fascinated by Alligator Farms.  I do keep my car’s air conditioning system fully maintained.

The Novel

Kaye Park Hinckley brings that era of Florida alive vividly.  It certainly brought childhood memories alive for me after many years, but A Hunger in the Heart is not a simple story of a Florida that was less metropolitan and more Southern.

As you read this beautifully written novel you may well find yourself finding similarities with the writing of Flannery O’Connor.  Kay Hinckley does not wear her theology on her sleeve anymore than O’Connor did.  However, Ms. Hinckley is a member of the Catholic Church.  Just as you will find moments of grace, salvation, and redemption in O’Connor, so will you find them in this novel.

The novel follows three generations of the Bridgeman family.  Coleman Putnam Bridgeman, the patriarch, is the Boss of Gator Town.  No, Gator Town is not Gainesville, Florida, but a small Florida town in which some folks might be said to recognize themselves. The Boss has developed Gator Town with tourist attractions, such as an alligator farm.  He is bringing tourism to the small town.

His son, known as Putt, served in World War II.  He was a hero, saving one of his Sergeants lives.  In the process, he suffered a head wound.  Though it is the 1950s, for Putt, the war is still very real.  Some men return from war forever changed.
Coleman, III, loves his father and his grandfather.  However, when he plays war with his father, he doesn’t understand that for his father, the maps he draws in the sand are actual tactical battle maps recreating situations he encountered in the Pacific.

The Boss, a widower, has moved Putt, Coleman, and Putt’s wife, Sarah Neal out at the old cabin he once shared with his beloved wife Emma.  It is Sarah’s job to see that Putt stays out of trouble, takes his medication, and keeps him out of town.
Sarah’s is a hard plight.  Her faith is not enough to cope with Putt’s condition.  She bolsters her faith with booze.  As the Boss bluntly tells her she has crawled into the bottle and she will drown there.

But on a bad day, Putt sneaks away from home.  Down at the Piggly Wiggly, surrounded by customers, Putt believes he is back in the war.  He believes he’s on fire.  He strips naked.  The Boss must wrap him up and carry him home.
Something terrible happens with this weapon:
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Upon learning that he is to be committed to a state mental institution in exchange for false charges of sexual assault being dropped, Putt becomes involved in a struggle over his weapon with Sarah Neal.  Whether he kills himself, or Sarah Neal accidentally shoots him in an effort to take the gun away from him is left to the interpretation of the reader.  A central question is whether young Coleman will ever forgive Sarah Neal for his Father’s death.  He believes she killed him.

Ironically, Putt saved a native of Gator Town, a young black man named Clayton, an orphan raised by Aunt Aggie, known for raising homeless black children.  Sarah Neal angrily blames Putt’s condition on the Army for making him responsible for saving a no-account such as Clayton.

The truth is Clayton is a no account, a prisoner, in the state penitentiary for a theft.  The crime for which he has been convicted is minor to what Clayton has actually committed.  In Clayton, evil is a palpable force.  For Clayton, Jesus is an entity with whom he can bargain.  Escaping from prison, he carries with him, a Madonna he had stolen from Putt, the man who saved his life.

“‘Remember how you saved me once?  Okay, okay.  So I fell out of your boat and got sent up the river again.  You don’t want me to spend another ten years in that prison do you?’  Then he remembered the statue and felt for it in his pocket. See here? I got your mama.  I’m gonna take care of her too, if you just come on, Jesus’ and save me.'”

Ms. Hinckley addresses the issue of whether a life is so without value it is not worth saving.  The resounding answer is no.  Every life has value because each person has the possibility to change.  It’s a matter of choice.

Without any doubt, the moral center of “A Hunger in the Heart” is “Fig,” a black man taken into the Boss’s home as a child from Aunt Aggie’s.  For Fig there is no black and white.  He is in a sense color blind, not only to race, but to all human frailty.  He is the Boss’s right hand man.  He is the purveyor of forgiveness, the moral compass for young Coleman, and the ultimate key to redemption. Fig serves as the perfect foil to Clayton, or “Sarge.”  They are respective representatives of good and evil.

In an especially effective structural device, Ms. Hinckley provides a five year skip in the action aging young Coleman five years.  We watch Coleman developing into a young man.  He is estranged from his mother because of her alcoholism and her attraction to her therapist who is attempting to cure her alcoholism.  What is especially effective is his recognition of Clayton as the man whose life his father saved and his recognition of him as a conman and thief.  The question is, will Coleman seek revenge.

Kaye Hinckley writes with a lyrical beauty, yet can shake the reader with a sudden jarring edginess.  Her characters are memorable.  They are human.  Each has frailties and faults.  Each needs the strength, love and forgiveness of others.  Don’t we all?

Winston Groom wrote, “Kaye Park Hinckley’s novel, A Hunger in the Heart, is a story of hope, forgiveness, and redemption. It’s a great read in the tradition of southern fiction.”

Mark Childress said, “Kaye Park Hinckley is a writer with a sensitive ear and a keenly developed sympathy for her characters.  Her debut novel, A Hunger in the Heart, marks the beginning of a promising career in the world of fiction.

Highly recommended.

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