THE TILTED WORLD is one of those grand books that contains elements common to a number of different genres --- mystery, thriller, romance, historical fiction --- yet in the end is nothing less than a work of literary fiction. Author Tom Franklin, whose work has received critical and commercial acclaim since his short story, “Poachers,” attracted widespread notice, has collaborated with his wife, poet Beth Ann Fennelly, to create a work that is powerful, riveting and memorable, told against the backdrop of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.
The rain and the river are ever-present characters in THE TILTED WORLD, influencing events and affecting lives as two federal revenue agents travel undercover to a tiny crossroads named Hobnob, Mississippi, in search of two of their colleagues who have gone missing. Ham Johnson and Ted Ingersoll have been bound in friendship and blood, initially during the Great War, where Johnson was Ingersoll’s superior officer, and later as revenue agents who have hopscotched the country while being tasked with enforcing the Volstead Act. They barely arrive in the muddy little hamlet when they stumble across a crime scene containing three dead bodies --- a gypsy couple who attempted to rob a store, and the shopkeeper --- and a very lively infant.
"While THE TILTED WORLD is beautifully told from beginning to end, the memorable narration does not sacrifice the story of these star-crossed, erstwhile lovers whose entire world is on the brink of both salvation and tragedy."
Ingersoll is given the job of transporting the baby to a local orphanage. However, when he arrives at the institution, Ingersoll, himself an orphan, cannot bring himself to leave the child there. After making inquiries, he gives the baby to a local woman named Dixie Clay Holliver. His choice in a surrogate mother is ironic, given that Dixie is the manufacturing arm of a local bootleg whiskey business and that her husband, Jesse, is the charming salesman who is the public face of the enterprise. Furthermore, Dixie and Jesse are to varying degrees culpable in the disappearance of the two agents who Ingersoll and Johnson are attempting to find. Dixie, however, is still feeling a dull grief from the loss of her infant son to illness some two years prior, so that the sudden arrival of this new infant is like a gift from heaven.
Ingersoll is almost immediately smitten with Dixie, and while Dixie is a bit slow on the uptake, Jesse’s philandering and careless, half-hearted affection --- not to mention his criminal enterprise --- is not quite what she signed on for when she married him at age 16. The future, in any event, does not look promising for Dixie and Ingersoll, given that their occupations are diametrically opposed. There is, however, the rain, which threatens the levies along the Mississippi, and will change both of their lives --- and that of many others irrevocably --- in ways that no one could ever have predicted.
While THE TILTED WORLD is beautifully told from beginning to end, the memorable narration does not sacrifice the story of these star-crossed, erstwhile lovers whose entire world is on the brink of both salvation and tragedy. Franklin and Fennelly take the first two thirds of the book to set things up, and spend the last third pushing their readers to the edge of their seats. This is a strong, frightening and ultimately uplifting tale of redemption and justice that will not be easily forgotten.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 4, 2013