Some writers may fade as their bodies begin to fail them, publishing books that aren’t quite up to their usual standards; Russell Banks, on the other hand, seems to have saved one of his best for last. The Magic Kingdom tells the epic tale of Harley Mann, a boy that spends most of his boyhood on a Shaker plantation in Florida, and then becomes a real estate mogul later in life. My thanks go to Net Galley and Knopf Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
Harley’s father dies when he is young, and his mother is forced to take him and his many siblings elsewhere. At first, they land in a religious cult on a plantation that works them like slaves; then Elder John, the head of a Shaker Colony in Florida, rescues them. Harley’s mother and most of his siblings become Shakers and remain with the colony until its eventual demise, but Harley has his doubts.
Nobody can craft character the way that Banks has, and he has melded a fascinating setting, one which begins over a hundred years in the past and follows Mann into his dotage in 1971, and which also incorporates a fair amount of Florida geography and history. Most of the story centers around Harley’s deep and abiding love with Sadie Pratt, a young woman being treated for tuberculosis in a nearby sanitarium. Sadie is not a Shaker, but is friend to them, and visits often when her health permits; Harley, just coming of age, falls for her hard. There’s a good deal of tension between Harley and Elder John, who despite all of his adherence to Shaker beliefs and practices on the surface, is also privately building himself a personal stake that only Harley knows about. By the time the book is over, I find myself wondering whether Harley’s character represents a real historical figure. No indeed; this is just the kind of magic that one finds in Banks’s novels, his capacity to build characters so real that they are nearly corporal.
The little shots off the bow that are fired at the Disney Corporation—by Harley, of course, and his representative after his demise, not by Banks—add a tinge of edgy amusement.
Because I had fallen a bit behind, I procured the audio version of this book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and so I can tell you that the narrator does a fine job, and it’s as easy to get lost in this story listening to it as it is reading it from the text; I did some of each.
This novel is brilliant, and all that love excellent literary fiction or historical fiction should get it and read it.