Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society
by Amy Hill Hearth
An unlikely group comes together in a small Florida town to form a Literary Society. Set in Naples, Florida, before the building boom, the Society is composed of a divorced woman, an “un-open” gay man, an elderly woman just released from a 30 year jail term for killing her husband, a librarian with hidden aspirations, a female writer who hides her real identity, and a young black woman who is a maid by day but who also has hidden dreams. Brought together by Jackie, a Northerner from Boston who has moved to Naples with her family, they are stunned by the changes which Jackie brings about even as Jackie herself has a secret; she is the sultry voice of Miss Dreamsville, the late-night radio voice that shocks and galvanizes the town.
1. Discuss the various forms of prejudice that each character is subjected to throughout the novel. Consider not only the racism that exists in Collier County, but also the less overt discrimination—like the doctors’ attitude toward Robbie-Lee’s mother’s chest pain, or the way Dora is treated for being divorced. Do you think such attitudes are inherent or taught?
2. How much of a person’s character is shaped by the times in which they live? Was it difficult for you to imagine a time when segregation was so prevalent? When even someone as good-natured as Dora would try not to stare at “the colored girl?” (page 12)
3. What was your reaction when Jane reveals to Jackie that she completely fabricates her sex advice columns? Did you find it ironic that she “sounded annoyed” when Jackie asked her if she had actually done what was written in the column? (page 53) How easy do you think is it to ignore the possible consequences of our actions when we are separated from actually having to see the results—by distance, or otherwise?
4. Dora says about Jackie, “She was, clearly, a ‘Boston Girl’ through and through. Cultured. Progressive. All that Yankee stuff we Southerners find so irritating.” (page 10) Later Jackie says, “What a mean little redneck town this is. I had no idea it would be so . . . Southern.” (page 205) How did you react to this hidden conflict between North and South? Do you think this sentiment still exists today? What did the rest of the literary society learn from Jackie and her Northern family (and vice versa) that changed these attitudes over the course of the novel?
5. Some authors (e.g., Mark Twain) intentionally use colorful storytellers who are to be believed more because of the underlying truth embedded in the story than adherence to rigid standards of objective reporting. Dora, a self-described storyteller, seems to belong in this time-honored category. Do you think she is telling the truth as she knows it? Can a storyteller be an objective narrator? Can anyone truly be an objective narrator?
6. What makes Jackie the ideal friend to each member of the Literary Society? What common ground do they share? Do you have someone who has been a similar presence in your life?
7. Were there any historical facts about life in Florida during the 1960s that surprised you? In what ways does fiction provide a means for a fuller understanding of a nonfiction truth?
8. Why do you think Jackie was the only one who had such a strong response to The Feminine Mystique? Do you think their points still hold true?
9. Discuss the members’ reactions to Their Eyes Were Watching God. What did you think of their conversation? Was anyone’s opinion unexpected? Do you think their conversation was worlds apart from the discussion that would take place today when reading the same book?
10. Many characters in the book have an alter ego of sorts: Dora is the Turtle Lady, Jackie is Miss Dreamsville, Jane is Jocelyn Winston, and even Miss Lansbury is an Osceola Indian who has been “passing for white.” (page 248) What do these alter egos express about each character’s personality?
11. The town is shocked and angry when they discover Jackie is Miss Dreamsville. Do you think their reaction was warranted? What does it say about the disconnect between fantasy and reality? Do you think there was a real person who could’ve satisfied the various visions of Miss Dreamsville? Or would people have been disappointed no matter what?
12. Jackie says, “Maybe freedom means defining yourself any way you want to be.” (page 145) Do you agree? How do you feel about Jane’s reaction that “we are a long way from that happening”? Do you think the society members end up defining themselves how they want to be, and thus finding their freedom? Whose life do you think was changed the most by being a part of the society?
13. Dora reflects, “How hard it must be to keep fighting for your dream when that dream is probably a mirage.” (page 199) What do you think is the difference between a dream and a mirage? Discuss the role dreams play throughout the novel. Were you surprised to discover Priscilla was pregnant when she seemed to have the most focused dream of going to college and becoming an English teacher?
14. After everything that’s happened to them, Dora thinks, “. . . now I could see the genius in allowing the future to evolve. You could create momentum. You could launch something and see where it goes. You couldn’t line everything up, like so many dominoes, and make everything fall into place.” (page 250) Do you agree or disagree with her? What was your reaction to the ending? Did the protagonists follow the paths you thought they would take?
15. What differences (or similarities!) did you note between the literary society in the novel and your own book club?