James McTeer II grew up in Beaufort with the family traditions of mudbogging and story-making. His grandfather was the “High Sheriff of the Lowcountry,” who fought voodoo with voodoo in the twentieth century and wrote four books about it. These inheritances gave McTeer the tools to create something new.
Hub City Press, in upstate South Carolina, has published McTeer’s novel, “Minnow.” It’s the winner of the South Carolina Arts Commission’s First Novel Prize. The book should be in every vacation home for its insights into Lowcountry nature, and in school libraries for its exploration of resilience.
And with its conflicts between man, magic, and nature — between exploitation and balance — it should be on every bed- and hammock-side table in Beaufort, too.
Minnow is a young boy. His father is ill, and his mother sends him to the pharmacy in a time before cell phones and health insurance. The pharmacist takes half his money (“you don’t need it all”) and sends him on to a witch doctor in Port Royal. Minnow walks there from Bay Street, avoiding sailors and rowdy juke joints and a monkey smoking a cigarette. Cigar-smoking men try to take the rest of his money. Dr. Crow’s shack is beyond all this, at the edge of the river where Minnow is engulfed by nature and an odyssey through the jungle-crowded Sea Islands.
Dr. Crow doesn’t want Minnow’s money. He burns a dollar bill to prove it. He wants a specific handful of dirt, and gives the boy a small pouch and big warnings.
One pouch full is all the doctor needs, and it’s all the boy takes, too.
There is love in McTeer’s voluminous descriptions of nature. He uses points of history and culture to pin down the wildness. “Minnow” is immersed in water, mud, wind, and trees, again and again. The naturescape is so dense that a horse is entombed in a tree, a branch sticks in Minnow’s face, people are embedded in mud after a devastating storm, and monsters lurk.
They pounce, too.
Dr. Crow informs Minnow that he is up against Dr. Shrike, as in the “bird that will nail something to a thorn to kill it.”
Dr. Crow says “three things gonna come at you … some are already on their way. Some of them may already be here.”
“What can I do?”
“… Look for it, and when you see it, face it straight on. Ain’t no use in running.”
And Minnow dives right in– he gets a barge across the river with an old, laughing man in a straw hat, and is joined by a significant dog. Together, the boy and dog embody the beneficial balance between nature and man, between getting mauled by a boar and escaping it, and between choosing one path in the jungle over another despite the fearsome plateye.
Throughout the book, the boy remains resilient by thinking of his sick father, reviewing the advice he’s received, using every outdoor skill he’s got, and eating barely enough: “He ate it with eyes closed, succulent like the sea itself, and thanked the warm air and the river before them for the wonderful meal.”
An island man named Petruchio helps him: “No one can tell you if you’ll be safe. It’s your road.”
“But the road is there.”
“It’s a road, and it should be a quiet road.”
“I can walk a quiet road … . How far will I have to go?”
Minnow wasn’t wondering how many miles.
When I finished the book, I decided to take a walk down the street.
McTeer’s parents live around the corner. The book is dedicated to them. His father was in their backyard on the salt marsh. I asked him what he thinks about his son’s book. He’s read it three times, he explained, and showed me the copy he keeps– “the traveling Minnow”– for McTeer to autograph at the book signings they attend together. McTeer, his mother and his sister all work in libraries– completely unmuddy places– and his father spoke eloquently about language and good stories and starred reviews.
“When his writing pulled me along and made me want to finish it, I felt justified in telling others it’s a good book,” he said. “Everything in it is fiction, it’s not one of those ‘who are you in the book.’ The seed of “Minnow” was planted a long time ago.”