2 out of 4 stars
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Heks Island - Earth: Refuge in the Okefenokee Swamp is the first book in Pat Harris's Heks Island Okefenokee Swamp Adventures series.
The novel starts in 1885. Dr. Ben Bouvier, who has just finished up his medical internship at an asylum in Florida, is moving to Waycross, Georgia, to be closer to his only living relatives -- his brother, Nat, and Nat's wife, Hazel. Ben dreams of opening a private practice, having a place to call home, and starting a family. These dreams slip through his fingers when he's wrongfully accused of murder.
With an angry mob at his heels, he seeks refuge in the Okefenokee Swamp. Luckily for him, he isn't left to fend for himself for long. Ben is rescued by Hattie, the leader of Heks Island, a hidden community full of society's outcasts. With these people, Ben creates a new life for himself, while also holding onto some of his life back in Waycross.
At its heart, this novel is about Ben's quest for family and a sense of belonging. Magic and the supernatural also play a substantial part. Hattie performs several spells (and only speaks in rhyme), and there are voodoo elements as well.
Other than some mature themes, this reads like some of my favorite children's books (like Hatchett or The Little House series). This is because a large portion of the story encompasses Ben's adjustment to living in the swamp. He has to learn how to build shelter, hunt, cook, etc. These are all explained in meticulous detail. The research that has gone into this book is truly remarkable. Only one detail is historically inaccurate, and Harris points this out at the beginning of the book. I always appreciate it when historical fiction authors are upfront about any liberties they've taken with history.
While the research and his loving descriptions of the Okefenokee Swamp shine, the characterization falls a bit flat. There's an awful lot of showing and not much telling. Ben's character seems better suited for a children's book. Despite having only just finished his medical internship, he always knows just what to do to save someone's life. The things that go wrong in his life are rarely his fault. In the official summary of the book, Harris says that Ben's life spins out of control thanks to "betrayal, voodoo and plain bad luck," and that's precisely what happens. He does show some growth, though; he grows from a somewhat helpless young man into someone confident and daring. Many of the people on the island blur together, but there are a few standouts. Monique, a young woman who has truly been dealt a terrible hand in life, was my favorite character.
The absence of "show, don't tell" also harmed the dialogue as well, which was often stilted. Additionally, Hattie could sometimes be challenging to follow, thanks to always talking in rhyme. She had to say a lot to say a little (and then still managed to be cryptic about it). Monique, the one character who had difficulty speaking, actually had the most interesting dialogue. All of that being said, each of the characters on the island had a unique voice. Most of the characters in the real world (other than those they wanted to show were poor or uneducated), all sounded the same.
The story was told in the third person with alternating focal characters. This helped to give some depth to characters other than Ben, namely Hattie and Monique. It was also interesting because it showed things from the perspective of the "villain" in town, and illustrated how predatory they were.
If you like slow-paced novels that focus on the day-to-day life of multiple characters, then you should give this book a shot. If you have any interest in swamps or tales about living off the land, I think you'd really enjoy reading this. However, if you like a lot of suspense or nuanced characters, I'd recommend skipping this one. Additionally, if reading about magic and voodoo doesn't interest you, you might want to pass on this book. I would not recommend this to younger readers due to references of incestual rape, abortion, and a group of people threatening to kill a baby born with a genetic disorder. Additionally, the N-word is used once.
There are numerous errors throughout the book; they include missing quotation marks, improper capitalization, and missing articles. The errors, in addition to the somewhat weak characterization and stilted dialogue, are the reason I give this book 2 out of 4 stars. I didn't rate it lower because the research is honestly incredible, and I thought the details about surviving in the swamp were pretty interesting.
Heks Island -Earth.
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