This tale is set in the 1950s in a poor community in Florida, and the author has chosen the difficult challenge of telling the story in the first person, that person being a ten-year-old girl. The themes of poverty, race, corruption and crime are an integral part of the book, and yet it’s a warm, funny and above all compelling read. Extremely well written and well-paced, the story of Lilly Dalton (“Lil Bit”) who lives with her grandmother (“Bubbah”) and her Uncle Bobby, engages from the beginning.
Lilly’s voice is individual and insistent, and Willett Thomas accurately captures and sustains the voice of a bright child, without sentimentality or faux-naivety. When something terrible happens to Lily, we see the world of adults and their behaviour through her eyes, and the author manages to strike the balance between the child’s perception and what really happens with great delicacy and skill. One of the best things about this book is the way Lilly’s understanding and knowledge develops as she grows up – the book covers a time period of about three years – and is always believable and deftly conveyed.
The plot is driven by the events in the opening chapter, which takes some time to unfold and resolve. The implications and developments of those events keep breaking through into the everyday lives of Lilly, her family and friends. The characters are all clearly drawn and the author does not shy away from showing their complexity; this reader particularly liked the relationship between Lily and her errant mother, and the way Mama heartbreakingly tries to seduce her daughter’s affections with “pink dresses …in varying degrees of pinkness”.
A particular strength of the book is its depiction of a close community and its unexpected cohesion and dignity. In its midst, however, we are reminded that dreadful things happen; the unspeakable tale of Sammy Clark, the fate of Rags Jeffries, all told with the clear-eyed acceptance of the child. This demonstration of the difference between young and adult sensibility is one of the author’s great strengths.
Counterpointing the rich domestic detail is the story of Bubbah’s lost brother, Tommy, related through his letters to her. These episodes are simply and minimally outlined, like a deep thread underpinning the main narrative. The author maintains a clear control and mastery of that narrative at all times.
The characters, both major and minor, are drawn with real insight and all come alive on the page. They are both memorable and believable, and reflect the genuine complexity of life. Willett Thomas presents them especially well through dialogue and interaction, but gives just enough description for the reader to envisage them from the moment they are introduced. This is a rarer skill than might be imagined, but it means the author largely avoids cliche and preserves the originality of the tale.
In this book, we are in the territory of Alice Munro and Harper Lee, and `Raised by Hand, Lifted by the Tide’ is fit to be in such esteemed company. I therefore have no hesitation in highly recommending this expertly crafted work. This is top literary fiction.