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The Magic Kingdom
by Russell Banks
Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2022

The news of Russell Banks’ death last January hit me hard. There would be no more novels to look forward to, no more novels to devour and treasure. But somehow I had missed out on the news that a new novel had come out last November.  I felt a tad let down when I discovered that the novel was based on a real-life transcript and therefore not fully sprung from his rich imagination.  I should have known better. I was in for one last luxury read and fittingly I was in Florida, near the setting of it all.

As Banks tells us in the Forward, the novel is based on a set of reel-to-reel tapes which he discovered in the basement of the Veterans Memorial Library in St. Cloud, Florida. It would be several years before he ordered on eBay a working, vintage reel-to-reel tape recorder and got down to listening to what was there: recordings from 1971 by one Harley Mann, aged 81, a semi-retired speculator in Florida real estate, who had taken it upon himself to record his memories on tape. That is what we are told in the Forward, so Banks wants us to believe it’s true and I have to assume it is, the bare bones of it anyway. Banks says he took it upon himself to “form the story into a coherent narrative.”  How modest. Majestic in its prose, towering in imagination, it is pure Banks.

The novel begins with Harley Mann as a young boy in the 1890s.  He was born in the Ruskinite colony of Graylag, outside Indianapolis. He had a twin brother Pence. Another set of twins, Royal and Raymond, came along two years later.  When that community dissolved, the family moved to the Ruskinite colony of Waycross, Georgia, where the father died.  Soon after, that community fell apart due to illness. With a baby girl now in tow, the mother and her five children get tricked into settling in the post-Civil War Rosewell Plantation where they “lived like slaves,” a fascinating story in itself, but only prelude to their next move, which was to the Shaker community of New Bethany, Florida. To escape Rosewell, the mother had written to Elder John of New Bethany “whose fellow-communistic existence she as a Ruskinite had long been aware of.” Always on the lookout for new members, Elder John came to her and the children’s rescue.

Here the real story begins:  The mother pledged herself and her children to the Shaker community, which meant they were required to give over all possessions and property (of which she had nothing) and to give over her children, who were then bound to work as directed by the elders and eldresses until they turned twenty-one, if male, or eighteen, if female. Harley Mann was twelve at the time.  He adapted to the community where the men and women ate and slept in separate quarters and where the children were separated from the parents. The Shakers believe in sexual abstinence, but Mann, at age twelve, was relieved by it as that meant he did not have to worry about Elder John’s attention to his attractive mother. Thus began a life of “purity, community and separation,” where they were obliged to cut themselves off from the rest of society and devote themselves to hard work and religious practice, worshipping Jesus Christ (and the religion’s founder Mother Ann Lee, the “second appearance on earth of Jesus Christ, this time in female form.”)  The family easily adapted.

One person, a non-Shaker, flits in and out of their community: Sadie Pratt, who is a resident of the sanitarium nearby. She suffers from consumption, but has spells of good health along with weak periods. She likes to spend time at New Bethany now and then where she helps out or is allowed to rest.  Everyone loves Sadie, who happens to be a real beauty.  Harley is twelve when he first meets her and considers her a friend although she is nine years older.

Life in New Bethany is idyllic. It is much like the utopian-socialistic Ruskinite colony only with the addition of a strong, albeit unorthodox, Christian religion.  Of course, there is no Eden without its serpent.  In this case discord enters in when Harley comes of age and experiences the natural changes in life that will eventually leave him desiring Sadie as more than a friend. He suspects that Elder John, with whom she spends much time, shares the same feelings, and a little jealousy enters in.  I wish to say no more as this is a story full of surprises from here on out.

But know that this is no mere tale of forbidden love. Banks is more interested in the philosophical questions that hang over Harley and Sadie’s relationship. And of how a belief system can survive the weight of human frailties.  How human nature is formed and how it doesn’t change, but contexts and circumstances do. Events of near biblical proportion take place, and a decision made that will alter the fabric of the entire colony and make national news – facts that real-life documentation verifies. It is often said that Banks found the mystical in marginal lives and that is certainly true here.

Fittingly, the eventual sale of the Shaker property by Mann is to Walt Disney, a corporation which seeks to transform the Florida landscape into another would-be paradise: The Happiest Place on Earth.  But there are sinkholes everywhere, even one in Mann’s front yard with which he does battle.  This geological phenomenon becomes a metaphor for the inevitable backlash at attempting such ideological goals. And can be said to show Florida in its battle against rampant and unscrupulous development.

Side note: Mention is made of another utopian community in the general area whose charismatic leader, Cyrus Teed (aka Koresh), led, dubbing the followers Koreshans. Curiously, it was his bizarre pseudoscientific beliefs which David Koresh of Wacko, Texas, would later discover and incorporate as his own, the two like names being purely co-incidental.  A discovery that was making local news as I was in Florida.  Elder John and Koresh meet and there is some interaction between the colonies.

I mentioned how I will miss Banks’ writing, but I will also miss the man. What a huge outpouring of remembrance appeared on social media at his death, with tributes from both emerging and known writers, and friends of all stripes, verifying what a kind and generous man he was. As Carolyn Forché wrote: “He gave unflagging support to imperiled writers all over the world.”  I had my own brief interaction when I wrote to him asking permission to reprint his story Blue in The Barcelona Review, which could offer no remuneration. He responded right away and said he would be happy for it to appear.  He later wrote that he liked the layout of the story online. It remains one of my favorites.

RIP, Russell Banks. And thank you for the immense pleasure you have given us in your extraordinarily gifted storytelling.   JA


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