Author: Laura Lee Smith
Data: Grove Press, 464 pages, $25
If you are aging and ill, estranged from your drug-addicted son and in danger of losing your business, you may have a little trouble reading St. Augustine author Laura Lee Smith’s newest homer: “The Ice House.”
It’s the story of a Jacksonville family that operates an old ice factory on the rundown side of town. Scottish immigrant Johnny MacKinnon and his wife, Pauline, a Jacksonville native, had bought the plant from her father two decades ago. Now a mysterious accident involving an ammonia spill has OSHA threatening fines that will shut them down. On top of this, life has thrown the 53-year-old Johnny a major curve: He has a brain tumor and must have an operation.
As with her first novel, “Heart of Palm,” Smith has a definite sense of place. The city of Jacksonville, its past and present, its black and white, its rich and poor, has a starring role. Her well-drawn characters are immersed in its aura of “bridges and Baptists, of Navy bases and nor’easters, of breweries and boats and the hot, holy temple of the fifty-yard line at EverBank Field.”
Like many of the city’s inhabitants, Pauline MacKinnon has taken up running … on the beach at low tide, when the sand was wide and flat… always in training “for some race or other … and maintaining a meticulous log of times and dates and pace rates in her iPhone.” But it has taken its toll on her body … “After one meniscus surgery, one ACL repair, one eroded kneecap and enough osteoarthritis to sink a ship, it was a wonder she could still walk, let alone run.” But she could live with that… “the knee pain was bearable.” Nightmares from her youth and her husband’s illness and pending operation is what keeps her awake at night.
Her stepson Corran’s estrangement from his father was also a problem. Expensive rehab efforts with the now 30-year-old who lives near his mother in Scotland hadn’t worked. On his last visit to Jacksonville things went missing, including Pauline’s wedding ring. A fight ensued and an angry Johnny sent him back to Scotland. “I want you gone, he’d said to his son. And poof. Corran disappeared.” A year later, they learn that he has a baby and is now “clean” … and working to support the child.
Every family has its problems, you say. But for Johnny things take a turn: He is told his impending operation may be more complicated than originally thought.
“One of the few passions that incline men to peace is fear of death. Thomas Hobbes said that; Johnny had read it somewhere. It’s a pity, he realized now, that we don’t think of it sooner.”
So two weeks before the operation, against the doctor’s orders, and leaving the ever-growing business problems for Pauline, the adventure begins. After hiring his neighbor’s teenage son as his driver, they take off to make things right.
Smith is a devil with the details and her complicated and fascinating portrayal of this family and our city will have you flipping the pages and cheering for more.
Lee Scott lives in Avondale.