One of my favorite places in the world is the Low Country of South Carolina – that area along the coast characterized by salt marshes, Spanish moss, dolphins, jasmine, Gullah accents, and sea turtles (among other things). It’s also home – and/or inspiration – to a flock of writers. (Even I wrote a novel, albeit ill-fated, set in Charleston and its environs.) There have been at least four novels featuring sea turtles, three that I can think of off-hand concerning sweet grass baskets, and quite a few centered on well-off white women and their beach houses. There have been so many books set on the Carolina Coast that the Low Country novel could be considered a genre. So many, in fact, that you’d think there’d be nothing left to write about the area. In her new novel, however, Mary Alice Monroe has come up with something fresh – shrimping.
At heart, this book is the story of Bud and Carolina, a mature couple in a shrimping village on the coast. Bud is one in a long line of shrimp boat captains. His wife, Carolina, comes from a country club family, but she loves being out on the shrimp boats, too. Nevertheless, what with child-rearing and Bud’s long trips in search of the big catch, the couple has drifted apart. Their marriage has gone cold, and their financial situation isn’t too great either. Carolina wants to spend more time with Bud, but Bud has been spending longer and longer hours on the sea, sometimes staying away for months at a time, in pursuit of the big catch that will turn their fortunes around.
Last Light Over Carolina takes place over one day, though the present-day action is cut with flashbacks to various stages in the couple’s marriage, and in the life of their daughter. On this day, Bud goes out to sea alone, and then gets caught in a storm. He is injured and becomes trapped on the boat, with no way to communicate to shore. Will his family and friends find him in time? And can this marriage be saved? And what is the future of shrimping in South Carolina?
By the time you get to the end of the book, you’ll know the answer to at least two of these questions.
Mary Alice has made a name for herself as a conservationist, and her previous books concern sea turtle preservation, egrets, and the threat to the sweetgrass that is traditionally used in Gullah basketmaking. In Last Light Over Carolina, her latest eco-drama, she juxtaposes the struggles of a long-time shrimp boat captain with the concerns of conservationists. It’s also a story about family and marriage. And I have to say it was refreshing to read about real people struggling to balance the budget, as opposed to the Junior League types who so frequently pop up in Low Country fiction.
Mary Alice, if you’re out there, I have a suggestion for your next book. Since you obviously have a passion for the flora and fauna of South Carolina, how about a novel involving alligators? No one’s done that yet, and I’d love to read it.