Floyd Betts is a bit of a loner. He lives a solitary existence in Galveston, Texas. He works construction on local building projects and rents a room at Abigail Elder’s boarding house. It’s a quiet life, and Floyd likes it. But all of that is about to change.
When Floyd returns to Old Cypress, Texas, for his father’s funeral, he encounters Nellie and Hank. Nellie is 12 years old and Hank is 9. They were recently orphaned under mysterious circumstances as their family was preparing to leave Old Cypress. Nellie’s mother was accused of being a witch. It is very, very possible that Nellie may have inherited some of her mother’s abilities, including her “whisper talk,” which allows her to communicate with others using a hybrid form of empathy/telepathy. Hank doesn’t share these abilities with Nellie, but his father did teach him to be a crack shot.
Floyd feels that he can’t leave the children in such a hostile environment and impulsively decides to take them back to Galveston with him. Along the way, they pass a wagon for Professor Finn’s Healing Spirits, Waters, and Mystical Tinctures. As they pass, they see two men wrestling with someone, or something, in the creek near the road. Nellie immediately attempts to intervene, demanding that the men (She repeatedly calls them scoundrels.), not hurt the person they are attempting to subdue. Nellie can tell they want to make him, or whatever he is, into a sideshow exhibit while all he wants is to go home, wherever that is. Floyd steps in to help with the rescue and Hank, who is a crack shot, disables their wagon.
As the group sets off again for Galveston, taking the amphibian-man, whom the children name Charlie Fish, with them, they know they have made enemies of Professor Finn and his travelling companion, Kentucky Jim. What they don’t know is that, as they make their way towards Galveston, something else is moving in as well. The biggest storm this area has ever seen is on its way and when it hits Galveston, it will change all of their lives forever.
Josh Rountree’s debut novel, The Legend of Charlie Fish, is a bit difficult to describe briefly. It is definitely a western given the time period, and some of the story elements. It is also a love letter to early 20th century Galveston, a city for which Rountree admits a fondness in his afterword. Nellie’s abilities, and family history, add a generous amount of fantasy, while Charlie, the amphibious humanoid, will bring to mind science fiction films like The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Shape of Water. Rountree expertly weaves these disparate story threads together into a gripping tall tale, which is anchored by the historic storm, the largest to hit the US before or since, in which part of the story takes place.
Rountree’s characters are marvelous, working as both archetypes of the western genre and also nicely developed individuals, who at times are a pleasant surprise by being just a bit more than the reader may have been expecting. Charlie is the central mystery of the novel. Rountree provides just enough background, sensed by Nellie in her mental exchanges with Charlie, to make his appearance in a Texas creek seem plausible and his desire to return home a necessary goal the other characters feel compelled to help him achieve. Rountree’s descriptions of Texas, in general, and Galveston specifically, are lush and evocative.
More than anything else, The Legend of Charlie Fish is fun! It is, to quote Kirk Douglas from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, “a whale of a tale.” But it is also grounded enough in human desires and experiences, in human frailties and strengths, in the shared experiences of longing for a home and how we often create the families that we sometimes lack by birth. Readers will find more than merely a sense of spectacle and wonder within Rountree’s yarn.
Read an interview with the author here.