Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Look Back at the Prince of Tides

Low Country Beaufort South Carolina
“Deep, dark depression, excessive misery. If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. Gloom, despair and agony on me.”  This Buck Owens and Roy Clark tune could be the mantra for the Wingo clan in Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides.

Published in 1986, it follows the Wingo family’s desperate attempt to survive the South Carolina low country, each other and their rural community. They are a family of shrimpers dependent on the whims of nature. The twins Tom and Savannah were born in a hurricane. In the company of their older brother Luke, we learn to enjoy the beauty and solitude of the low country in spite of its difficult conditions.

The story flashes back and forth between New York City and South Carolina. Savannah has physically escaped her family and the low country by fleeing to New York, but mentally she is still imprisoned. The City and the world have embraced her poetry. Tom is a former high school football coach that can’t find a job. Tom travels to New York City to assist his sister recover from slitting her wrists. Prior to leaving South Carolina his wife, Salley informs him she is having an affair, and she’s not sure she wants Tom to come back home from New York.

Tom meets Savannah’s psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein. She rich, she’s married to a famous violinist, and she is completely unhappy. Tom dumps his family’s tragic history on her in an attempt to heal Savannah, and possibly help himself. In a perfect example of misery loves company, Tom and Susan become extremely close friends, and end up dancing in the sheets.

Conroy uses the location as an antagonist in the story. Like the other characters the low country has tremendous superficial beauty, but the personality is mean. The low country symbolizes Conroy’s construct of people; pretty on the outside but cruel on the inside.

Conroy not only destroys the people in the story, he also destroys the low country.  Based on a true event, the government builds a plutonium factory in the middle of the salt marsh destroying the town, the Wingo’s home, the shrimp industry and ultimately their family. 

Conroy wrote a masterpiece. He writes very descriptive prose that helps the reader visualize the low country. At times he seems to drift breaking up the flow of the story, but it fits the literary style of the day. Prince of Tides received rave reviews, and Hollywood made a movie of it. Jimmy Buffett wrote a song about it. The story was written thirty years ago, but has anything changed?

The story epitomizes the sentiments of today. The characters have little respect for other people, and treat each other badly. The story contains a high degree of greed, and little respect for the environment and conversation. The plutonium though highly regulated still exists today. The plant is in the process of being upgraded to convert weapons grade plutonium to fuel for nuclear power plants and waste.

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