Fennelly and Franklin: “The Mississippi Sea”

By Thomas Wörtche

The two prohibition agents Ted Ingersoll and Ham Johnson are supposed to dig blackburn nests, but then they find a baby. (Deutschlandradio / Heyne Verlag)

In “The Mississippi Sea”, Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin tell of one of the greatest natural disasters in US history. The duo cleverly exploits the material offered by the apocalyptic backdrop.

It is an epic story that the married couple Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin have planned for their novel “The Sea of ​​Mississippi”. The “great flood” of 1927 was probably the greatest natural disaster that had hit the United States, at least by then.

Failure of the authorities

Persistent rainfall led to dam bursts along the mighty Mississippi, 70,000 square kilometers of land were flooded, hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless, and the exact number of deaths cannot be estimated. State aid measures were ineffective, sabotaged by corruption and partial interests.

The incumbent President Calvin Coolidge showed a remarkable indolence, for his “crisis manager” Herbert Hoover the flood was the stepping stone into the White House. What we would call the failure of the authorities today hit the black population marginalized in the southern states, who ultimately increasingly had to migrate to the north, particularly hard.

Everything flows into one another

In order to make this apocalyptic situation narrative, Fennelly and Franklin draw in a superficial criminal literary plot: The two prohibition agents Ted Ingersoll and Ham Johnson are supposed to dig black burner nests and look for allegedly murdered colleagues. When Ingersoll finds a baby who survived a massacre of his parents, he confides it to Dixie Clay, who recently lost her own child.

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Dixie Clay is a bootlegger and is also married to the gangster Jesse, who, on behalf of financially strong “bankers” from New Orleans, is supposed to blow up the dam near Hobnob, a fictional small town, in order to divert the water away from New Orleans. Ingersoll and Clay fall in love, but then the tide comes.

The duo exhausts the material that the backdrop offers: natural disaster, love, gangsters, saboteurs, racism, political ranks, prohibition, corruption, action and violence, nature, birth and death, loyalty and betrayal, bizarre characters and more cute baby. Everything is there, everything flows into one another, to stay in the metaphor.

An event immortalized in the blues

And because Ted Ingersoll is a great blues freak and musician, unusual for a white man of the time, there is a reference in it: “The great flood” of 1927 may, as Fennelly and Franklin write in the foreword, “have largely been forgotten his “, but she experienced permanent artistic processing in the blues of the 1920s and 1930s – Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Charlie Patton, Barbecue Bob, John Lee Hooker and countless others made impressive songs out of it.

Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin: “The Mississippi Sea”
From the American by Eva Bonné
Heyne Verlag, Munich 2020
384 pages, 22 euros

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