Lesley M.M. Blume’s Tennyson is a stunning Southern gothic tale, haunting and lyrical. It’s 1932 and the Depression has hit the United States hard. Unaware, Tennyson and her little sister, Hattie, live a wild and carefree life in the backwoods of Mississippi. Their home, Innisfree, is a tiny cabin set back in the forest, inhabited by their parents, Emery and Sadie, and a wild dog named Jos. The girls live a life full of freedom until the day their mother leaves.
When Emery goes off in search of his wife, he leaves the girls with their Aunt Henrietta, at his childhood home, Aigredoux. Aigredoux is the ancestral Fontaine family home in Louisiana, that Emery and Sadie left far behind when they married. In ruins since the end of the Civil War, the family has lost all their money and their place in high society. Aigredoux itself has been overrun by vines, moss, and the weight of its own past. While there, Tennyson is haunted by dreams of her family’s past and the “blood money” that built Aigredoux, on the backs of slaves. The dreams horrify her and at the same time inspire her to write the tale of her family’s demise. She knows that if she can get the story published in the one magazine her mother always reads, Sadie will see it and come back home.
This is a novel that intelligent readers will love, because Blume does not condescend or speak down to her readers. In many ways, Tennyson reminded me of Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting. Both books treat children as intelligent human beings by handling realistic situations and stories. Yet they both embrace the magical realism that is all too often missing in children’s fiction. Both books also end rather abruptly, as life often does. Unlike Babbitt, Blume chose to chop her final two chapters from the original manuscript, which sound as if they would have served the same purpose as Babbitt’s Epilogue in the sense that it would have let the reader know exactly what happened to each character farther in the future. I applaud Blume’s bravery in removing the chapters and letting the reader decide for themselves.
Blume has crafted a haunting and poetic novel that will stay with you long after closing the book. She captures the spirit of the old South in ways that make you love and loathe it. Just like Tennyson says, “That’s what the Mississippi does. It tempts you in, and then it catches you. It loves you and doesn’t want to let you go. So it pulls you down to the bottom and keeps you there.”
Be sure to check out Blume’s great website, including links to many plantation houses.