written by David Steffen
This was originally going to be a review of the Nebula-nominated novellas of 2013. But my time ran out while I was still reading Wakulla Springs, the first of the novellas I grabbed, so instead this is a review of just that one story.
The Nebulas are one of the two big awards in the SF community, this one voted by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. You can find the list of all this years Nebula nominees here.
Wakulla springs is the story, or perhaps the stories, that spans more than half a century from (I think) the 1940s to the present day. Most of it centers around Wakulla Springs in Florida, the largest and deepest freshwater spring located near Tallahassee, and the Wakulla Springs Lodge, a real life hotel.
The first section’s protagonist is Mayola Jackson, a fifteen year old colored girl who gets a job working as a maid at the segregated lodge, in a hiring rush when a Hollywood film crew visits the area for taping the water scenes for a Tarzan movie in and around the springs. The other stories follow along with her family members as the decades pass, and as the American society changes around them from the era where segregation was the norm up to today.
The characters in this story were very believable. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this was based on a true family because they felt so real, especially since the location and at least some of the characters were real people of the time, such as Johnny Weissmuller who played Tarzan, and Edward Ball the owner of the lodge.
The story certainly had a lot going for in the way of theme, with the recurring incidents of Hollywood affecting this family’s lives.
It had plenty of conflict. Any story written empathetically in the time of segregation is going to have conflict, of course. The conflict here wasn’t violent, but was ever present nonetheless.
What it really lacked, though, was a cohesive plot arc or character arc. It doesn’t help that it’s split up into four separate stories that are sequential and each person’s story relates to the last, but it makes the story overall come off quite uneven. Even within each individual chapter that follows a single person, I didn’t feel like each one even had a real character arc or plot arc that would take the events or the person from one place to another fully rounded place in the way that I expect a story to take me. Things happened. There was conflict, but it wasn’t that the characters were really major actors in these events, things happened, and then the chapter ended. The parts never felt like a cohesive whole, and each part never felt complete on its own either.
It also really lacked a speculative element at any point in the story that I could discern. There were a couple hints at it, but one was likely a fatigue and stress induced hallucination, and the other was pure imagination on the part of the character. For a story published on Tor.com, and a story that’s nominated for the Nebula, I really am looking for a speculative element.
I enjoyed reading the story. The story was well-written, the characters were very strong, and it had a lot going for it, but I didn’t feel like it really held together as a unit the way I expect a story to hold together. It was good, but not as good as I thought it could be.
One thought on “Review: Wakulla Springs by Ellen Klages and Andy Duncan”
I just read this novella (received as a gift because I am a Tallahassee native) and wanted to respond mainly because I didn’t have the same reaction as you did at all. In fact, I was blown away by the story and all the side stories and how all the lives were woven together. What a surprise, too. There is a lot between the lines here! The subtle implications are beautiful; how people and generations change is gently shown; discoveries are revealed in layers; the descriptive narrative takes you THERE. I am going to look up these authors for more!