Monday, February 06, 2023

The Magic Kingdom by Russell Banks, his elegiac novel about early Florida

The quest for a perfect society is woven into the American experience. Through his bittersweet novel, Banks explores the flaws in the design of an early 20th-century utopia—and by extension, perhaps all utopias—through one man’s mournful regrets.

The premise is that the author discovered a collection of reel-to-reel tapes in a dingy Florida library basement and transcribed and edited their forgotten narrative: the confession and catharsis of Harley Mann, an elderly real estate investor, who speaks in 1971 about his long-ago past.

As a twelve-year-old boy in 1902, Harley is eager to please but has an independent mind. After his father dies, his mother moves the family from their secular Georgia commune to a plantation whose cruelty becomes apparent. Rescued by the charismatic Elder John, the Manns head south to abide with the Shakers in his community, New Bethany, in central Florida.

The children, too young to formally become Shakers, all learn the ways of the oddly compelling religion. Harley trains in beekeeping and becomes Elder John’s protégé, though his obsession with Sadie Pratt, a tuberculosis patient seven years his elder, threatens his devotion to his Shaker family—who are celibate—and the group’s very stability.

The Shakers are industrious, but their focus is neither charitable nor commercial, and the plot evokes these tensions. While The Magic Kingdom is an engrossing morality tale, Banks is equally concerned with how the characters live day-to-day alongside their beliefs and nature. The land and waters—which intermingle in this swampy country—are gloriously described, as are the native birds and other animals.

Contrasts with the profitable artifice of the Walt Disney Company, which we’re told eventually purchased the Shakers’ land, quietly underlie the entire novel. It all leaves the reader, like Harley, yearning to return to this unspoiled, vanished paradise, imperfect as it was.

I wrote this review for February's Historical Novels Review, and it was published by Knopf last fall (and No Exit Press in the UK). The Magic Kingdom is Russell Banks' final novel. Several days after I finished it, I read online that he had passed away at age 82.  Read the obituary at NPR, which describes him as a writer who "found the mythical in marginal lives."


  1. Caz F-G7:09 PM

    This review makes me want to read and explore not only this book, but this genre as a whole!

  2. Anonymous10:05 PM

    This looks amazing! Thanks for the review.

    1. It's the type of novel that sweeps you away into another world, just the type I enjoy reading. Thanks for your comment!