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The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly

the tilted world
the tilted world
the tilted world


Highlights: The book is set during the Great Flood of 1927, and explores the devastation the flood caused in the area surrounding the Mississippi River.
Synopsis: In the midst of great turmoil, the unimaginable can happen. For Dixie Clay and Ted Ingersoll, the flood that threatens them also draws them closer together.



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Character development and the use of Southern dialect are particularly strong. The skills of a novelist and a poet combine to beautiful effect.


Parts of the plot are improbable, and the ending may seem a little predictable.

Posted January 27, 2014 by

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n the winter of 1926-7, the grey skies above the mighty Mississippi opened their veins and unleashed a torrent of rain, the likes of which had never been seen before and have not been seen since. The deluge lasted too long, and in the end, the Mississippi River simply could not contain all the water that flowed in from the creeks and springs that fed it. When the levees broke, the result was one of the most devastating flood disasters in American history. Known today as the Great Flood of 1927, it is an event that has been largely forgotten because it has been overshadowed by the destruction of recent hurricanes such as Katrina. Yet, the flood has not been entirely lost to posterity; it has been memorialized in the literature of the South, in such works as William Faulkner’s story “Old Man.” Now, a new generation of Southern writers has started to use the flood of 1927 as a source for their works. Most recently, authors Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly set their novel The Titled World in the midst of the events surrounding this dark time. The authors utilize the flood’s havoc and chaos to expose the reader to a world that has been unsettled, tilted as it were. Through the adventures of two revenue agents bent on discovering the murderers of their fallen comrades and the moonshiners who are at fault, The Tilted World brings to light a time when no one can be trusted.


The Tilted World begins in the middle of a gun battle. On her way home from checking on a moonshine still, Dixie Clay stumbles upon two revenue men holding her husband, Jesse Holliver, at gunpoint. They know Jesse operates the largest moonshine outfit in the area, but he refuses to reveal the still’s location. When the men threaten Jesse, Dixie Clay springs into action. A crack shot, she manages to remain unseen as she maneuvers her way ever closer to the revenue agents and Jesse, who shouts out that the men are surrounded by his gang. After the agents give up, Jesse takes their guns, then takes them for a ride; they are never seen again. Although Dixie Clay cannot believe her husband would ever commit murder to keep from being caught brewing moonshine, the men’s disappearance worries her. When government men disappear, more will come to take their place. Enter Ted Ingersoll and Ham Johnson.

Agents Ingersoll and Johnson are sent to Hobnob, Mississippi, to find out what has happened to the missing agents. During their journey, they stumble upon a grocery store where a shootout has just occurred. Lying in the middle of the floor, flanked by a dead woman and man, is a baby boy. Ingersoll takes the baby to nearby Greenville where it can be placed in an orphanage. Meanwhile, Ham continues on to Hobnob disguised as an engineer trying to save the town’s levee from collapse.

Having been an orphan himself, Ingersoll quickly bonds with the child, and when he finds that the orphanage in Greenville is overcrowded, he just takes the boy with him. When he arrives with the toddler in Hobnob, Ingersoll discovers that a young woman named Dixie Clay, who lost her only child to fever and illness, might be interested in taking the boy. The agent makes his way to Dixie’s place, and after nearly shooting Ingersoll, she happily takes the baby. Ingersoll makes his way back to Hobnob, but he cannot take his mind off the beguiling young woman and the baby, with whom he feels an unusual connection.

Once he arrives in Hobnob, Ingersoll has his hands full. He and Ham know Jesse is the moonshiner, but the man is too clever to be caught easily, and when news reaches the men that dynamite has been stolen in order to destroy the levee, they have bigger problems than finding the still. What follows is a series of missteps, an unlikely love affair, and a conspiracy that runs as deep as the waters of the muddy Mississippi. Only time and luck can save the entire town from the utter destruction of that river’s might.


The Tilted World is a nod to “Old Man,” and it most resembles Faulkner’s tale when the main female characters of each work are stranded in trees with snakes circling beneath the branches to which the women cling. Whereas Faulkner’s work deals primarily with the events that follow the flood, only a third of Franklin and Fennelly’s novel deals with the flood’s aftermath. Instead, The Tilted World, which features several down-on-their-luck and uneducated Faulkner-like characters, focuses more on the events that lead up to the levee breaking. Still, it is hard not to admire Faulkner’s obvious influence on Franklin and Fennelly, who reside in Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi.

Another element of the work that may lead to its becoming a Southern classic is the authors’ choice of language. When written by someone who has had little exposure to Southern dialect, dialogue can become cartoonish. In the capable hands of someone like Franklin, an Alabama native, however, the words sound crisp instead of overdone. Jesse “reckons” he will have to abandon his philandering ways to see to the stills. And at the house of ill-repute where Dixie Clay goes to find Jesse after their son has died, she is told in response to her inquiries about Jesse’s presence that they “Never heard of ‘im….Ain’t nobody here like that. Ain’t never been.” While the “ain’ts” and “y’alls” are present, they are not used to excess.

Perhaps one of the greatest surprises of The Tilted World is that it is the combined effort of a husband and wife team who write in different genres. Tom Franklin has established himself as a Southern novelist, with such works as Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter and Hell at the Breech under his belt, but Beth Ann Fennelly is a poet who has left her primary field in order to partner in this effort. While the dialogue and use of character are reminiscent of Franklin’s other novels, some of the more lyrical parts, such as Ingersoll’s references to jazz, have a hint of the poet in them. The authors seamlessly blend their talents with positive results.

Although the ending of the novel is slightly predictable, not all that ends, ends well, for many of the characters simply do not survive the flood. The ones who do will forever be changed. A great novel by two talented writers, The Tilted World puts a new spin on an old tale.

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Mollie Smith Waters

Mollie Smith Waters teaches American literature, theater, and speech at a small community college in rural Alabama. Her hobbies include reading, writing, traveling, and walking.


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