Florida has always beckoned to schemers, dreamers, lovers and losers. There's something about the Spanish moss and swampy terrain that attracted people looking for a new start - or a way out. Some arrived on the famed Orange Blossom Special, the first train to run from New York to Miami. Others found their way less directly. But what these pilgrims shared was a desire to escape their dead-end lives. It's 1958. Into central Florida come Tessie and Dinah Lockhart, a mother and daughter starting over in Gainesville after Jerry Lockhart has died suddenly in Illinois. It's a shaky beginning: Tessie still talks to her dead husband, and Dinah believes the peculiar tics and twitches of a classmate are coded messages from her father.
The women soon begin to find their way. Relationships take root when popular Crystal Landy befriends Dinah, and loudmouth Victoria Landy reaches out to Tessie. As years go by, other members of the Landys' extended family come to personify the struggles of the times. Ella Sykes, a domestic worker in the household, is traumatized by racial violence in the town. Charlie Landy nearly loses his life in Vietnam. Even though these episodes only skim the surface of the conflicts that were so central to the 1960s, they add solid touches of realism to the novel.
Carter's storytelling is engaging, almost effortless, and lively throughout. The moon is "so round and pale it looked like Khrushchev's head." A woman refusing an embrace wiggles away "as if it were a blanket of bees."
Her 2002 memoir, Nothing to Fall Back On, was subtitled The Life and Times of a Perpetual Optimist. That optimism is evident here in Carter's first novel: it's refreshingly free of the overbearing dysfunctionality popular in so much current fiction, and Carter has the confidence to let the story unfold at a leisurely pace.
The Orange Blossom Special ends with a coda that fast-forwards to the 1980s. Tessie and Dinah have matured and embody the certainty that new beginnings have the power to transform us — and that a second chance may lie just ahead and down the road.
Amy Rogers, a founding editor of Novello Festival Press, is the author of Hungry for Home: Stories of Food from Across the Carolinas.