Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings had her first glimpse of Florida in March 1928, aboard a steamer at the mouth of the St Johns River. It was love at first sight, which really can happen with people and places. I’ve had a similar rush of amazed delight about particular landscapes myself: it feels like the surprise of connection, or perhaps of recognition. Whatever you want to call it, it exists. Florida still charms many people, of course, including me, although what tourists now enjoy in Miami, Orlando or Key West bears no relation to the wonders that entranced Mrs Rawlings eighty years ago. She saw an alien, tropical, untamed land lit by an impossibly clear wide sky and knew that she could find what she needed there; knew that she could write there, as she passionately wanted to do. It was, as they say, a defining moment.
By November of that year, Mrs Rawlings and her first husband Charles Rawlings had bought, sight unseen, an orange grove in central Florida, set in a wild jungle between two marshy lakes – or, to be more precise, they had bought 74 acres of land with 3,000 citrus trees, a small pecan grove, a flock of 200 chickens, two mules, a four-room ‘tenant’ house and an eight-room farmhouse. The tiny local community, which Mrs Rawlings later described as no more than ‘a bend in a country road’, was called Cross Creek. Her first biographer, Gordon Bigelow, described her response to it: ‘When she stepped for the first time out of the bright sunlight into the deep shade of the orange grove, she had a feeling that after long years of spiritual homelessness she had at last come home, that an old thread, long tangled, had come straight.’
Before Cross Creek, the Rawlings had been working as journalists in Rochester, New York, and trying to write fiction in their spare time. For Marjorie the move to Florida gave her exactly what she needed, and although her marriage did not survive the transition, her writing flourished because of it. In the year
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