An unlikely group of storm evacuees and their horses endure forced togetherness as a hurricane bears down on their refuge. That’s the basic plot of the latest book by a nationally-known writer who’ll be visiting North Florida June 13 and 14.
Mary Alice Monroe is a New York Times bestselling author. She’s penned almost two dozen novels. One of these - “The Beach House” - became a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie that came out a year ago. Her expressive genre of choice is something called “environmental fiction.” And her latest novel, entitled “The Summer Guests,” is set in the middle of a hurricane. Monroe said she’s been through more than a few of those herself.
"Oh, my gosh! More than I can count," she exclaimed. "We moved to Charleston, South Carolina, right after Hurricane Hugo. So I can't even remember the count, but we've lived there for 22 years. And I think I have a little bit of PTSD. We (never used) to evacuate for category one hurricanes. And now I do. Now I'm out when that wave comes off of Sierra Leone, I'm in the car with my dogs and my birds and I'm gone!"
In fact, Monroe said the basic premise of “The Summer Guests” is also something she’s experienced firsthand.
"This book is autobiographical in the sense that I was fleeing Hurricane Irma and I went to my girlfriend's horse farm up in Tryon, North Carolina. And a lot of other people were fleeing from Wellington and Miami, Florida and from Kiawah and Isle of Palms, South Carolina. And we're all staying at her horse farm and all during that time I connected with the animals. I was sleeping over the barn in a loft apartment."
Always a great lover of animals, Monroe says this was her first intimate encounter with horses.
"The horse I connected to!" she said. "And even though a lot of us don't own or ride horses, we still have a strong feeling for them. Because they're iconic in our American culture for sure."
Monroe decided to weave the unique personality and traits of horses into “The Summer Guests” to further expand and deepen the story.
"For people who do work with horses, either through dressage or jumping or just riding, the connection - the smallest signal from them - communicates like a language to the horse. And I always look for a parallel with humans and I really wanted to focus on how humans too have signals and expressions and movements that we make that we pick up on from each other. And when you're living in a pressure cooker of all these families together waiting out a hurricane, every signal matters and so you have a lot of explosive emotion."
Despite the multiple plot levels and drama inherent in the tale, Monroe insisted the book has its share of laughter and light moments for readers, in addition to one thoughtful question.
"I want them to enjoy the read and love the characters because there are some quirky characters in this book, along with the horses. But I want them to think this out for themselves: When I leave, what do I bring with me? What will I treasure?"
That question, Monroe admits, is one that certainly still resonates in the area she’s headed to next week as part of her book tour. She’ll be in Tallahassee the evening of Thursday, June 13th, hosted by Midtown Reader. The following day, Friday, June 14th, she’s appearing in Panama City, a community still reeling from last year’s Hurricane Michael. She admitted the prospect of seeing the lingering destruction distresses her. But she still hopes the central message of her book will connect with that town’s residents because she’s been through storms herself.
"Unlike the characters in the novel, I have evacuated from so many hurricanes and I've realized over the years that inside the house, it's just stuff. What I bring with me now are my animals and loved ones of course. But I realize the rest is just stuff and it's a lesson for life, I think. When we all evacuate for the final time, it's all just stuff except for our loved ones."
Mary Alice Monroe will appear at 6:00 p.m. Thursday, June 13 in the Main Leon County Public Library in downtown Tallahassee. Then Friday, June 14 at 11:30 a.m. at the St. Andrew Bay Yacht Club in Panama City.