A Curious Matter Of Men With Wings
by F. Rutledge Hammes
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I received a free e-book of this title from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. It wasn't one I searched for, since I had never heard of it or the author, nor the small indie press releasing the book, Southern Fried Karma. Edelweiss has a section for titles being offered for download without having to wait for publisher approval. The premise sounded intriguing, so I took a chance. I'm glad I did.
One of the genre classifications given for A Curious Matter Of Men With Wings was "Magical Realism," an appellation I thought was reserved for Latin American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, or Jorge Luis Borges. I've only read a handful of works by them, so I'm not sure the description is warranted, but maybe in a way. There's more humor than I would expect to find in the sub-genre, so imagine it more like Joe Lansdale, only if he was from the Sea Islands instead of East Texas. Hammes lives in Charleston, South Carolina, his grandparents having lived on one of the islands for a time, so he is familiar with the area, and the story traditions of the Gullah people. I'm not sure if the Flying Men came directly from one of their folk tales, or whether other stories inspired Hammes to create them on his own.
Bohicket Walpole lives on one of the sea islands with his father, mother, younger brother Ley, and sister Dew. The boys spend their days fishing, spearing blue crabs, or digging for oysters, when they're not working on chores like mending nets, repairing boat leaks, or maintaining their series of rain-catchers. Late afternoons and twilight are reserved for minor piracy of yachts and sailboats. Their usual hauls consist of beer, food, fishing gear, and if lucky, cash. Dew, being much younger, and a girl, has traditionally not been allowed to accompany them on these excursions, but one day they give in to her pleas. They will regret that decision the rest of their lives. Dew is told to lie down in the bottom of their johnboat and keep quiet, but is startled when Ley fires off a warning shot. She jumps up, sees they have drifted away from the boat Bohicket is still pilfering. She reaches out for his hand to bring them closer, but falls into the water instead. She never resurfaces, but later at twilight, after frantic searching, the boys see her body carried away by flying men. Or at least that is what they believe they saw.
Bo and Ley recall stories of the flying men told by their father, who said it was a secret that must be kept. The Walpoles traded with Gullah villagers for items they couldn't find or make themselves, and one of their secrets was the location where they gathered a certain type of berry, a favorite of the villagers. Their father said they had to keep that location secret or else others would take what they wanted instead of trading. He had agreed not to tell anyone about the flying men, because to do so would attract undue attention to the islanders who wished to remain isolated from the mainland. In turn, the villagers had agreed to keep Walpole's secret. He was only on the island because he ran from his past. Little by little, we learn Walpole's story, including that his real last name was June, and that he had been an airline pilot.
The basic story of the flying men could have been told in fewer words, a novelette at most. The extended length gives us a more nuanced picture of island life, the traditions of the Gullah, a lush portrait of intriguing people in a harsh but beautiful setting. It's a lot like a long-winded storyteller, rocking back and forth on his front porch, imparting wisdom to all who will listen. One event, one character, always reminds him of something or someone else, the tale moving back and forth in time and context, with the prospect of an ending nowhere in sight. There's the tragedy of Bo's mother, heartbroken at the assumed death of Dew, fashioning wings for herself and jumping off the roof or from trees, desperately wanting to fly to heaven to be with her daughter again. We read of Annie Goode, an old woman who believes she's a shape-shifter, able to change into an owl. Ley's story takes him to the mainland in a desperate search for information pertaining to the men with wings, which at first causes him despair since that search implies they are invulnerable, but he later returns to the island intent on hunting them down and finding his sister, whom he thinks might still be alive.
Then there's the story of Bo and the village girl Aylin, which begins as friendship, but blossoms into love. Their path together is a rocky one, fraught with obstacles, pitfalls, and forced separations. In the end, they find their way back to each other, their love paving the way for the Walpole's acceptance and forgiveness of the flying men, who may not have the ability to fly souls to heaven, their intent always being to save people from drowning. Yes, the narrative is rambling, but that's also one of its strong suits. It is at times comedic when a more serious note was warranted, and some dialogue strained to be a bit too cute and clever for its own good. Still, a charming story, well told. I rated it 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.
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