By: Shelley Fraser Mickle
Reviewed by: Liz Reed
River City Publishing, 2007
The Assigned Visit contrasts lives lived in the North and South. As a born and bred Southerner, I find Shelly Fraser Mickle’s descriptions of family, food, and foibles so familiar they elicit memories of my own experiences as a child, teenager, and adult. Having never spent more than a week at a time up North, I find her descriptions of New England customs, cuisine, and characters intriguing, but unfamiliar. To me the essence of a good novel lies in the believability of its characters. Mickle’s descriptions and dialogue are so familiar they seem like friends, and sometimes relatives, of my own.
The story is set in the 1970s at a time war raged on three fronts: in Viet Nam, in civil rights, and in sexual liberation. Mickle tells her story in three sections. In Part One, new friendships form between Mississippi native Susan Masters, Boston native Caleb Montiel, and Caleb’s father, an Episcopal priest, anti-war activist, and Harvard chaplain. Susan has fled Mississippi for Boston to get away from her sheltered, small-town life and moves in next door to the Montiel residence, where she lives in Caleb’s world. Caleb is afraid of being sent to Vietnam. A widower, the strong-willed Reverend Mr. Montiel lives in his own world of loneliness, fury toward the war, and agony about Caleb’s refusal to deal with the reality of the pending draft.
Part Two follows Caleb from Boston to coastal Mississippi, for two years of social service in the wake of Hurricane Camille instead of the draft. He experiences a South filled with romance, mystery, and intrigue through an extended family of typically Southern characters he meets in Pass Christian. Throughout the second section of the book, letters, phone calls, and diary entries between Susan and Caleb keep them in touch as Caleb lives in Susan’s former world. Part Three finds the three main characters in Boston, together again twenty years later.
Major themes in the book examine the shared emotions of the turbulent 1970s: fear, shame, guilt, anger, frustration, sexual revolution, prejudice.
At first, Mickle’s style is a challenge to read. Her style of story-telling presents three omniscient narrators, allowing the reader to be part of their different worlds and their very different points of view. Throughout the book, several voices speak, often in the same paragraph, without benefit of quotation marks. The tenses change from present to past to future and it took me a while to get in the flow. By the end of the book, their different perspectives create an enjoyable puzzle to conquer.
Readers from both North and South will find in The Appointed Visit validation of the differences between two entirely different parts of the country and similarities in human nature and its quest for love and belonging.
Liz Reed, retired from the marketing research field, spends her days helping in her husband’s Birmingham bookstore, Reed Books, and painting. Her art is currently on display in Gadsden’s Mary G. Harden Community Art Center.