Set in the land of Mark Twain, author Melissa Scholes Young’s debut novel FLOOD combines the best of summertime with the power of a good story.
Join us for a Twitter Party with Melissa Scholes Young on Thursday, June 28, at 1 p.m. CST (2 p.m. EST). There will be fireworks & a book giveaway!
“Saturday morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life,” Mark Twain wrote in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In her debut novel FLOOD, now out in paperback, Melissa Scholes Young gives us the lazy days of summer filled with fireflies, barbecues and fireworks set to a backdrop of Mark Twain. Scholes Young was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, Twain’s boyhood home, and wanted to pay tribute to this literary town on the Mississippi River.
In FLOOD, Laura Brooks returns unannounced to her hometown of Hannibal after a historic flood 10 years before drove her away. She says she’s home to attend her high school reunion, but she’s carrying too much baggage for that to be true. It doesn’t take Laura long to become enmeshed in the town and its people again. Her best friend Rose is going through a divorce, her godson is competing to become the town’s official Tom Sawyer, and her high school boyfriend is single again.
Laura can’t forget that fateful Fourth of July when the levees broke and she made the decision to leave. Now, as the Mississippi rises again, a deep wound threatens to reopen, and Laura must decide if running away once more might be the best way to save herself.
Scholes Young weaves so many themes into this novel: Literary legacy, friendship, race, freedom, the magic of summertime and power of water. She’s also a master storyteller, and her descriptions of Hannibal, the Mississippi River and upcoming Tom Sawyer Days will have you planning a summer pilgrimage. In our interview, we asked her about the challenges of setting a book in her hometown, what it was like to grow up under the shadow of Twain and how she plans to spend her summer.
EZB: What made you want to write about your hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, and are you still welcome back there?
MSY: Hannibal is and always will be my hometown. It’s a part of my identity. I resisted writing about it at first, but my work had more voice once I embraced it. I grew up with statues of Tom and Huck, but I wrote FLOOD to reimagine their friendship as female. The story began with Laura and Rose. They’ve been friends their whole lives and can’t quit each other. Hannibal as the setting—and really as its own character—came later in the drafting.
My hometown still welcomes me. Home has to take you in; those are the rules. I still have a lot of family and friends in Hannibal, so yes, I return to my roots a lot. It meant a lot to me to hold the book launch in Hannibal and take this story about us home to my people. They felt heard, and I’m proud I could do that. We need literature and books like FLOOD with complicated portraits of rural America. Those are tales I’m honored to tell.
EZB: Like your main character Laura, most people have conflicting feelings about the place they grew up, especially when it’s a small town. How do you feel when you go back to Hannibal?
MSY: Those conflicted feelings arise because of my own view. I’ve changed. The town hasn’t as much. There are still so many things to love and to question, but I don’t see it through the same eyes, and that is not my hometown’s fault. I feel that the rural/urban divide is painted starkly in most literature and certainly in our country’s polarization. These communities have more in common than they think. Our desires for freedom, safety and opportunity are the same, but sometimes we blame small towns for keeping us in our place. A person can be insulated and isolated anywhere, though. You can choose to only interact with people who agree with you regardless of the size of your town. I’d rather leave and authentically choose to return than always wonder about where my path could have led. Maybe it’s growing up on the Mississippi with water at my feet, but I’ve always been more comfortable untethered and in between. I’m an observer—writers must be—and the outsider vantage gives me a wider lens.
Some of the myth serves us well. Tourists come for the story and soak up the charm. We all know the tales: Tom and Huck on the river, Tom and Becky in the cave, Huck and Jim on the run. As kids we ran in the cemetery and played a game called Muff Potter tag as we raced each other to the top of Cardiff Hill.” – Chapter Seven
EZB: You’re obviously a big fan of Mark Twain. Is it impossible not to be when you grow up in a place like Hannibal, and were you introduced to his work much like Laura and Rose were in the novel?
MSY: I was introduced to Mark Twain’s work much more authentically once I moved away. I was a history major in college and as a first-generation student, I had a lot of reading to catch up on. I had to wrestle with the stylized portrait Hannibal presents of Tom and Becky and America’s hometown. Reading Twain made me realize how much of Huck’s story of poverty and Jim’s story of slavery and racism we neglect. We want to move beyond it, but until we reconcile our past with our present, we can’t have an honest and inclusive future.
EZB: The Mississippi River plays a huge part in this story, and you have a wonderful quote from Toni Morrison to open the book: “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” Why was water a theme you wanted to explore?
MSY: Everything I write has water. It’s how I orient myself whenever I travel or tell a story. Water gives us life and threatens to take it away any time we try to control it. The history of Mississippi River levees should teach us that, but we refuse to learn. We still think we can wrestle with water and determine its direction. We can’t and that should humble us. Instead, those in power rarely want to protect those without and so low-lying land is always most threatened by floods, but those that live there have the best water view.
Growing up on the Mississippi River taught me how to adapt and to understand that floods have stages. We think of floods as destructive forces—and they are—but they also redistribute resources. Flooded farmland becomes the most fertile.
EZB: What did Twain teach you about storytelling?
MSY: We all have stories to tell. And we all have our own versions of them. Those with power are usually the ones who get to tell the story, but we should listen to marginalized voices. Of course the story shifts when different perspectives tell it. All of them can be true and at the same time. In Following the Equator, Twain wrote, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” I don’t believe Twain or anyone else can give you permission to tell your story. You shouldn’t even have to ask, and you certainly shouldn’t wait.
EZB: Hannibal isn’t the only town capitalizing on its literary history. What advice would you give to authors’ hometowns about how to promote their literary legacy to tourists while also respecting locals?
MSY: For locals, literary history is an opportunity and a responsibility. We must tell an inclusive story, even if it’s a painful one. Readers and tourists can navigate the complications and contradictions. The story is never simple. Literature should unsettle us. As readers and tourists, we must ask questions, interact, research and recalibrate. Hiding a history does not make it go away. It will keep knocking on our door until we have the courage to answer.
EZB: FLOOD opens during the summertime and features lots of favorite pastimes, from Fourth of July fireworks to barbecues and fishing. What are you looking forward to doing this summer?
MSY: Writing. S’mores and fireflies with my kids. Hiking with my dog. Having unscheduled time. Reading all the recommended books from Deep South’s summer list!