Can an unpretentious story with simple characters set against the backdrop of the Arkansas Ozark Mountains be a Desert Island Keeper? It can when it is written by Pamela Morsi and includes her trademark humor and gift of storytelling.
With a fixed fake smile on her face and a litany of “I am just so happy for them, I am just so very happy for them”, former teacher Jesse Winsloe endures sympathetic and solicitous conjectures from past co-workers and acquaintances as Greg Wilkinson, her ex-fiancé and school principal, introduces his new wife to parents, students, and staff at Lake Grove Middle School’s open house. Normally Jesse would be sitting with the faculty or in the middle section as the fiancée of the principal, but now she is neither. Last year when budget cuts necessitated the need for staff cuts, Greg chose the smart political move: He let Jesse go rather than a single mom with two kids. He justified his decision by telling Jesse this would allow her time to plan the wedding and after that immediately start a family. Except now she has nothing.
Her family recommends that she get away for a while and Aunt Will’s name is mentioned. While Jesse loved visiting Aunt Will when she was young, she hasn’t been back in years, and, frankly, visiting the backwoods of Arkansas doesn’t correspond with her idea of a healing retreat. However after Greg makes an overture of "Let the three of us be friends, and go out for coffee," Jesse finds herself telling him she can’t because she is going to the Ozarks.
Driving through her tears, she finally arrives at Marrying Stone. She is surprised to find that Aunt Will’s home is now a small country store selling “native remedies." Not finding Aunt Will immediately, Jesse discovers that her aunt has moved further into the hills to Onery Cabin. The primitiveness of the cabin exceeds her imagination but her happiness in seeing Aunt Will negates her misgivings. Aunt Will tells Jesse that she so glad that she came to see her because she has been worried about her, getting a sense of heartbreak and unhappiness, and tells her that she has the perfect remedy – her lovesick poultice.
Soon Jesse meets another recipient of Aunt Will’s lovesick cure, Erwin Frederick Baxley, Jr. or Piney, the community’s Physician Assistant. His ex-wife ended up breaking his heart twice. The first time she left him to raise their son by himself. Then she came back, asking for a second chance, but she was more interested in her drugs than her family. Now he is struggling as a single father to steer his son through the quagmire of adolescence. While both he and his son want the same thing – for him to go off to college - Piney is worried (and rightly so) that his son’s lengthy school romance with his girlfriend Camryn will negatively impact those dreams. Tree promised no sex in high school, and Piney is holding him to it. He wants his son to have opportunities he didn’t have.
From the very first page to the last, Ms. Morsi doesn’t miss a beat. It is almost difficult to know where to start when everything seems perfect. The simplicity of the plot lets the characters shine - and what great characters they are. While Jesse trusted the wrong man, and, yes, is heartbroken, she doesn’t wallow in her sorrow. She is willing to take risks, and ask for what she wants. As for Piney, the responsibility of being accountable for the health of his small community has given him wisdom beyond his years, and he uses this to find the right balance in being a single parent. He listens to his son but goes with his instincts. And those instincts also lead him in a new direction.
Aunt Will as the all-knowing “granny woman” provides humor, wisdom, and a wonderful sense of family. She is the icing on the cake. I especially loved that her abilities –her sixth sense, so to speak - integrate so well into the backwoods culture. And while she in some ways has lived an unorthodox life, the mores of the past influenced some of her major decisions, providing an authentic snapshot of yesteryear.
While I have read other books as charming and funny as this one, it has been a long time since an author really illustrated the problems of small town life, such as lack of opportunities for the youth. For instance, Piney has been saving for his son’s education, but an athletic scholarship would make a big difference. Camryn’s family doesn’t have the money and she hasn’t the grades for university, so her prospects seem to lead to only one way out. The community only has a doctor visit one day a week, and the rest of the time Piney handles their needs.
Although the story is more women’s fiction than romance, don’t let that keep you from reading the book. The relationship between Piney and Jesse is a joy, and the book is filled with love, laughter, heartbreak, and joy. You don’t want to miss it .
-- Leigh Davis
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