Virginia Hartman’s debut, The Marsh Queen, is the kind of novel that asks to be slowly savored. Set in a fictional town in the Florida Gulf and centered around a tumultuous family drama, Hartman paints a stunning picture of a fragile, yet monstrous marshland teeming not only with a variety of creatures big and small, but also with the sweet memories between a father and daughter.
The book opens with the night that everything changed for Loni Murrow. She is twelve years old and caring for her baby brother, Phil, when her father, Boyd, leaves to go fishing in the marsh. Twenty-four hours later, Loni listens in the shadows of her own house as her mother, Ruth, gets the news from the police captain. Boyd is dead. He drowned himself.
Years later and miles north, Loni, now a bird artist at the Smithsonian, is called back home to Florida by Phil, who needs her help transitioning elderly, confused Ruth into a retirement home. Loni begrudgingly and dutifully agrees to help, but when she finds a cryptic note in her mother’s things, the truth about Boyd’s death starts to unravel.
The mystery in The Marsh Queen isn’t that Boyd did not commit suicide. From the first page, it feels obvious that he did not. While the driving force of the story is the unanswered question of what actually happened to him, Hartman’s effortless yet evocative narrative voice pulls you in, as if beckoning you towards a crackling campfire and asking you to take a seat. She wants you to listen to a story about how a person will attempt to reconnect with her broken past.
Loni is pragmatic, urban, and educated. She is set in her routine in Washington D.C. She is determined to make her trip to Florida as short as possible in order not to fall victim to the looming rounds of downsizing at the Smithsonian, as well as to spend as little time as possible with her cold, fault-finding mother. She is very relatable in this sense.
She is also very relatable because, despite her mother and the pieces of the past that continue to haunt her, Loni still finds herself very attached to her hometown. When she arrives in Florida, she is upset to find out that the house she grew up in has been rented out. She can’t bring herself to donate the books that her sister-in-law sorted out of her mother’s “keep” pile and deemed as junk. Especially moving are the flashbacks of Loni and her father fishing together in the marshlands. The details of their little escapades tie in beautifully with Loni’s solo trips into the marsh for her present work, observing and sketching wild birds. These flashbacks only seem to add fuel to Loni’s desire to understand her father and the ultimate truth surrounding his death, even if it hurts her and puts her in danger.
Loni is a charming protagonist, one that I found myself deeply invested in, not only in her quest to find out what happened to her father, but also in her unspoken desire to figure out where she belongs in the world. The supporting characters, particularly Phil, his wife, Tammy, and her friends Estelle and Adlai are equally winning. Along with providing some of the lightness needed in a book so heavily focused on Loni’s trauma, they are also instrumental in the see-saw between Loni’s current life in Washington D.C. and the potential of what life in Florida could be for her. These differences are obvious, yet also somehow subtly drawn and unobtrusive throughout the novel, leading to a meaningful conclusion about where Loni ends up.
Balanced in both its character development and its pacing of mystery, drama, and levity, The Marsh Queen is the perfect read to end the summer.
The Marsh Queen
By Virginia Hartman
September 6, 2022