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Fiction Review     


The Watermelon King
by Daniel Wallace
Houghton Mifflin, 2003
Hardcover, $23.00 ( 226 pages)
ISBN: 0618221387

The town of Ashland in Daniel Wallace’s new novel, The Watermelon King, lives for past glories.  It was once known as the Watermelon Capital of the world- famous for the biggest, sweetest, reddest most beautiful watermelons on the planet- the kind of watermelons that brought agricultural experts from around the globe.  And like many small southern towns whose identity revolved around a certain crop, Ashland had its harvest festival- a Watermelon Festival, complete with games and floats in a parade and a king…a Watermelon King who wore a crown and waved a “scepter” made from wilting watermelon vines. 

Now if you know anything about harvest festivals, you know that they usually have queens or kings.  Queens stand around looking beautiful; smiling and basically representing the fulfillment of all that nature has promised- good soil and good crops and a full table at the end of the season.  Kings, on the other hand, are not so lucky.  The kings of harvest festivals, as any folklorist or mythology expert will tell you, are always sacrificed.  Their blood running into the ground is the seed that will ensure the earth’s fertility for another year.  Out of death comes life. 

Naturally, in this day and age murdering someone for the sake of future crop yields just isn’t done- so where such festivals survive the sacrifice has become a more symbolic act than a real killing.  As it has in Ashland, although even the symbolic sacrifice might seem distinctly pagan to an outsider’s eyes- not to mention cruel, and even brutal. 

Lucy Rider was just such an outsider- a vivacious, young women who came to town to check on some property her father owned, and then stayed because she loved the people and the place.  And the townspeople loved her- especially the men because she was a pretty girl who could make great sandwiches.  Some of the women were not so entranced as their husbands seemed to be, but Lucy’s friendliness and charm and fragility even won over a fair number of them…until she found out about the Watermelon Festival, and how the Watermelon King was chosen, and what, exactly, he was required to sacrifice. 

Not being a country girl herself, Lucy had none of the town’s innate respect for the spectacle.  She had a city girl’s sense of the supreme importance of the individual- the kind of thing that you can only get if you have grown up surrounded by thousands of strangers.  She had a city girl’s sense of justice, and a kind heart that couldn’t bear to see anyone hurt- even in the name of a greater cause like the bounty of next year’s watermelon crop.  So Lucy interferes with the plans for the festival.  Derails it completely actually, in a truly tragic way.  Indeed, it is Lucy who ends up being the sacrifice- to the horror of everyone involved. 

It was an injustice that demanded an accounting- a good, old fashioned, Old Testament style retribution.  The crops died, in a plague of truly biblical proportions.  The Watermelon Festival was cancelled, and the town lost its identity and its place on the map.  Life entered a kind of limbo.  Oh, people still grew watermelons in their gardens, but they are neither big nor especially beautiful and they certainly weren’t legendary.  Ashland began to deserve its name- it was a wasteland of a town, without purpose and without hope. 

So the feelings of the townsfolk began to run high when young Tom Rider comes back to the town almost twenty years later- seeking information about a mother he never knew.  A mother who never left Ashland.  To some young Tom is a chance for the town to redeem itself for the sins it had visited on his mother.  To others, young Tom has arrived to redeem himself for the sins his mother had visited on them.  But whatever young Tom thought he would find in Ashland, he did not know that he would be taken and crowned and made king of the first Watermelon Festival to be held in Ashland in almost twenty years. It isn’t a sacrifice he was expecting to have to make. 

Daniel Wallace first came to public notice with his first novel- Big Fish, “A novel of mythic proportions”. (and also set in the town of Ashland).  He has a genius for weaving mythic themes and tall tales into the fabric of everyday small town life.  Wallace’s first book was a kind of hero’s journey of one man trying to find the real person underlying the myths that made up his father.  The Watermelon King takes that journey and multiplies it outward- now everyone in the town has to make that journey.  And no one will get through it without having to make some kind of sacrifice.


Nicki Leone
Southern Scribe Reviews


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