Having not grown up during a time with segregation, it’s difficult for me to understand completely what such a society is like. But stories like Wakulla Springs at least help by highlighting some of the less overt but no less harmful racist and oppressive tactics used in the United States to maintain the social status quo. In this eponymous Florida town, Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages allow their characters to dream—and then sacrifice those dreams on an altar of realism.
The first part of the story is like watching a car crash in slow motion. Mayola has so much potential: she has a dream, goals, and is very practical about how she wants to achieve them. But it’s so obvious, from the moment Johnny Weissmuller enters the scene, what will happen. Mayola becomes trapped in a story that is far older than her but no less tragic for this reason. It leaves her bitter, both about the town and about the film industry that is so enchanted with its clear lake. But this bitterness doesn’t stop her son, Levi, from dreaming big himself.
Klages and Duncan quite skilfully tie their setting into their characterization. The subtle repetition of this generational cycle, and the way the lots of our protagonists incrementally improves with each generation, mirrors the slow march of progress over the twentieth century. Levi has more opportunities than Mayola, and Anna in turn has more opportunities than him. All are united by their love of the springs where they grew up. Just as it is the springs that draw the Hollywood film company to Wakulla Springs and Johnny in turn to Mayola, the same springs draw Anna back to research and catalogue the life that they harbour. And so the story comes full circle.
Wakulla Springs reminds me a lot of a Hugo-nominated novella from a few years ago, Shambling Towards Hiroshima. (I didn’t remember until now that it was written by James Morrow, whose The Philosopher’s Apprentice I recently read and detested. But that is neither here nor there.) Like the other nominee, this book does not seem very fantastical or science-fictional. Indeed, aside from a few small and isolated elements of fantasy, which do not seem all that integral to the plot, I’d question whether this book is speculative fiction at all. In this sense, I’m not sure I can vote for it in the Hugos. It is a gorgeous and well-written story, but I don’t know if it is an exemplar of science fiction and fantasy.