DG Martin: Quirky characters work to save Hatteras Lighthouse in novel

Published 7:06 am Wednesday, April 14, 2021

By D.G. Martin

Do you remember back in 1999 when the Hatteras Lighthouse was moved about 1,000 yards to escape  the rising ocean?

A happy outcome was not a certainty at the beginning. Some people were sure the lighthouse was certain to collapse during the move.

Would you believe that a young girl from the Outer Banks brought together her friends to cast a spell to keep the lighthouse from falling down during the move?

It happens fictionally in a story told by the central character of the Lee Smith Award-winning debut novel by Raleigh author Heather Frese, “The Baddest Girl on the Planet.”

The little girl, Evelyn, narrates the story, but she does not begin at the beginning, and that is part of the great charm of the book. She opens the book in 2013 when she is 23, married to Stephen, mother to their four-year-old son Austin, and working at Outer Banks Realty. There she has launched an affair with a co-worker, something that will result in her divorce and life as a single mom.

“My husband is not the first man to disappoint me,” she writes. “That honor goes to Mike Tyson.”

How Mike Tyson is responsible for her baddest girl tag is a thin thread that gives this book a quirky plot line.

Evelyn, Stephen, Austen, and the other quirky characters remind me of those constructed by best-selling authors Anne Tyler and Lee Smith.

In chapter three, it is 1999. Evelyn, who is called Evie, writes, “I am nine years old, and now, I’m a gypsy. I live in the National Seashore Campground in Frisco, North Carolina.”

She is living in her beloved Aunt Fay’s house, which is not a house but a camper wagon. On a moonlight night Evie drags her new friend Charlotte to the lighthouse site to cast a spell. Evie’s brother, Nate, and Aunt Faye appear, and at midnight they cast a spell, chanting, “Cats and dogs, pigs and hogs. Sturdy up the lighthouse logs.”

The lighthouse does not fall.

In chapter 4, in 2013, Evie wins a week-long trip to the Dominican Republic. She invites her long-time friend Charlotte to go with her on a prize vacation. It does not work out and both wish for the time on Hatteras when they first met.

Two years later, when Charlotte shows up for Aunt Fay’s funeral, we get a lesson on funeral etiquette and meet Walter, “Aunt Fay’s beloved but ill-mannered dog,” who competes to be the book’s quirkiest character.

In chapter seven, titled “Postpartum,” it is 2009. Evie has just given birth to Austin. She is not happy and writes, “Dear Abby, I look at my baby’s squalling red face and I want to run away. What do I do? [signed] Horrible in Hatteras.”

Abby does not respond.

Chapters nine and twelve are set in Las Vegas where Evie travels with her long-time Irish pen pal, Eamon O’Shea. He is charming as a letter writer, but a quirky total jerk in person. How she dumps him is one of the book’s best stories.

Free of Eamon, she learns that Mike Tyson is in Vegas.

When Evie was nine, in Ohio to visit Charlotte, she saw Tyson and got his attention. Back home on the island she inflated the story to make Tyson her very close friend. That worked well until her friends found out that Tyson was a rapist. It was, Evie believed, the beginning of her “bad girl” reputation.

In Las Vegas, she wants revenge and spends her last hours roaming the Strip in a determined, comical and totally unsuccessful attempt to find Tyson. Back home on the island in 2019, she meets another quirky character, a man who falls in love with her, making a happy ending a possibility.

But not for certain.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sunday 3:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV).