Return to Sullivans Island: A Novel (Lowcountry Tales)
by Dorothea Benton Frank

Published: 2010-04-27
Mass Market Paperback : 384 pages
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“Her books are funny, sexy, and usually damp with seawater.”< ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

—Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides


In Return to Sullivans Island, Dorothea Benton Frank revisits the enchanted landscape of South Carolina’s Lowcountry made famous in her beloved New York Times bestseller ...

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“Her books are funny, sexy, and usually damp with seawater.”< ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

—Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides


In Return to Sullivans Island, Dorothea Benton Frank revisits the enchanted landscape of South Carolina’s Lowcountry made famous in her beloved New York Times bestseller Sullivans Island. Frank focuses on the next generation of Hamiltons and Hayes, earning high praise from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which writes, “Frank brings to vivid life the rich landscape and its unpretentious folks….A reader need only close her eyes for a moment to feel that thick-sticky heat, smell the wild salt marshes.” If you enjoy getting lost in the works of Anne Rivers Siddons, Rebecca Wells, and Pat Conroy—novels brimming with atmosphere and strong Southern charm—you are going to love Dotty Frank’s Return to Sullivans Island.

Editorial Review

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Chapter One: Beth

Her plane circled the Lowcountry. Acres upon acres of live oaks stood beneath them, guardians festooned in sheets of breezy Spanish moss. They passed over the powerful waters of the Wando, Cooper and Ashley Rivers and hundreds of tiny rippling tributaries that sluiced their way in tendrils toward the Atlantic Ocean. It was so beautiful, all the shimmering blue water, that seemed to be scattered with shards of crystals and diamonds. Beth's heart tightened. Every last passenger stared out through their windows at the landscape below. Whether you were away from the Lowcountry for a week or for years, it was impossible to remember how gorgeous it was. It never changed and everyone depended on that. Seeing it again was like seeing it for the first time – hypnotic.

The small jet finally touched down on the steaming tarmac at Charleston's airport and after a few braking lurches it rolled to a stop at the terminal. When the flight attendant opened the cabin door humidity poured in, blanketing the cabin in a great whoosh like an invisible gas. The air was heavy, weighted by the stench of jet fuel diluted with salt.

"Hold on, baby."

Beth's miniature Yorkshire terrier, Lola seemed to understand everything she said. If she spoke to her in Swahili she would look at her with those licorice eyes of hers, raise her eyebrows and smile. Yes, her dog smiled but not just then. Lola whimpered and began to squirm. Beth stretched her finger through the netting of her dog's carrier to console her with a tiny massage. All five pounds of Lola settled against her as they slowly made their way with the restless passengers, across the muggy jet way and into the sorrowful, weak air conditioning of the terminal. She hoped Lola wasn't going to start wheezing. Could a mother love a child more than Beth Hayes loved her dog? She doubted it.

The climate had changed over the years. Global warming was obvious and in Charleston, the weather was practically tropical. Beth had decided that it was too uncomfortable to consider anything except escape into the jungle or a total surrender to the ruling party.

Beth had chosen surrender and was there to begin serving her one-year sentence in the Lowcountry, house sitting the family's grand dame on Sullivans Island. The Island Gamble. The family's chateau stood in defiance of her age and history and she reigned over them like Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Beth could not envision England's history without Elizabeth I any more than she could dream of Sullivans Island without that particular house as center stage for the disjointed hauntings of her sleeping hours. All of her dreams were acted out on Sullivans Island and at the Island Gamble. In the rooms. On the porch. In the yard looking back. Always, always there.

They used the term "chateau" loosely even humorously, but during the days and nights of their lives, the Island Gamble was where any and everything of significance for generations had been told around her tables or had been revealed in the confessional of her front porch. Lives were dissected and discussed deep into the night until aunts, uncles, and especially children, exhausted from the heat and laughter, nodded off in their rockers or hammocks. Their aspirations, broken hearts, and victories were all recorded for posterity in the family's collective memory, the details rearranged and embellished as time went on to make for better storytelling. The house knew everything about them and being there made them believe that they were safe from the outside world. In their case, telling family tales was what they seemed to do best. They would laugh and say that if there had been an Olympic event for working a jaw, the walls of the Island Gamble would have buckled from the burden of gold medals. Truly, the family was a very sentimental lot and their point of view was that the ability to poke fun at their own foibles was what saved them from despair on many a day.

That's how it was. The aging sometimes shaking ramparts of the Hamilton fortress were stockpiled with invisible weapons of remember when . . . we never . . . and we alway . . . as though they existed in their own great saline bubble, with a sacred family crest to live up to.

Sometimes the family wore Beth out with what she saw as excessive self-importance and righteousness. One day her aunts, uncles and cousins would all be the stuffings of novels, even memoirs perhaps, if she could find the courage to put it all on paper. But not just yet. Today Beth was on another mission. The Dutiful Daughter was back.

Beth gathered her luggage, walked Lola on the grassy median outside and found a place in the short taxi line. Part of her was excited and the other part was simply miserable. She loved Sullivans Island because it was her personal time warp. Even though it was 2009, when you were there you would believe that Eisenhower was still in office, even though that was well before her time. But in her heart she felt the island really belonged to her mother's generation and those before her. The last four years had prepared her to live her own life, independent of her tribe. Isn't that why she went to college a thousand miles away in the first place? Further, this assignment, decided upon with the cavalier flick of her mother and aunt's royal wrists, blocked her from pursuing her own dream but enabled her mother to live hers. It wasn't a fair trade but she wasn't exactly given an option. If asked she would say dryly, "My mom and my Aunt Maggie could benefit from even one session of sensitivity training. Seriously."

She climbed in the next available rattletrap and soon she was on her way. At least she had Lola to console her.

"Could you turn up the air conditioning, please?" she asked. Beth's upper lip was covered in little beads of moisture and the roots of her hair were damp.

"Sure." The driver said. "Today's a hot one, 'eah?"

"Yep. It sure is."

The old van complained with each pothole and strained against the slightest rise in the road. Its ancient driver, an old man whose white hair was as thick and coarse as a broom, was crouched over the steering wheel. The intensity of his focus on the road was nerve wracking. He drove like a lumbering walrus in the middle lane as hundreds of cars zoomed by them. She actually considered offering to drive thinking she preferred death by her own hand.

Memorabilia was strung across the old man's dashboard, photographs attached with bits of curling tape and lopsided magnets from Niagara Falls and in Beth's opinion, other painfully boring vacation spots. Judging from their faded condition, the people of those pictures, his children she guessed, were grown and had been gone from his home for a long time. His taxi license read Mr. George Brown. He sighed loudly and cleared his throat as the van's transmission struggled and jerked with each changing gear. She wondered if they would ever reach the causeway. Mr. Brown did not know that he was delivering her, her little dog, two large suitcases and a duffle bag, bulging with university memories, soggy farewells and a poor attitude to one very bittersweet destination.

"You want to take 526 or the new bridge?"

"Whatever you think," she said.

She had told her mother, Susan that she would take a cab from the airport to the beach. She was in no hurry to see anyone. Besides, she had just seen her mother and family at graduation a month ago so the usual sense of urgency she felt to be with her, the excitement of those initial moments of grabbing each other's eyes, had been satisfied. She was home before the longing could begin again. As all mothers do, Susan frequently drove her daughter to the edge of what she could endure but the truth was Beth loved her mother no matter what and more than anyone in the world.

Like most mothers and daughters, their relationship was naturally complicated by simply living and lately by the many small acts of letting each other go. But theirs was different in that it was scarred by the pain of tragic loss. To be completely honest, the loss was epic to Beth but she felt it was less so to her mother. That single fact marked the beginning of a worrisome divide between them. Beth was not exactly sure of all the reasons why she felt so burdened but she sometimes staggered under the weight of the sea of emptiness she carried. She felt like her mother had tossed aside her share and left her to flounder for herself. It wasn't fair or noble.

Then there was the matter of expectations, ones Beth would never meet much less surmount. It was impossible to be the oldest girl in the next generation of Hamiltons/Hayes and ever expect raving accolades from the lips of her elders. She might have looked for some measure of satisfaction from them but she would never expect a parade in her honor. There was no excessive flattery to be found.

Her aunts and uncles owned the past and they still thought the future was theirs as well. Beth begged to differ. She felt they were wrong about so many things that she was embarrassed for them, one more reason she had planned to continue to build her life elsewhere.

The distance between Beth's college and Sullivans Island had allowed the rest of her relatives to revel in their shared hallucinations of perfect family. College had spared her four years of their self-congratulations and she thanked everything holy that she had not been there. If she had been on that porch or around that table peeling shrimp with them, she would have said that what they actually were was very far from perfect. They would not have valued her observations. In college, she had developed a tongue.

It didn't matter now. She was not going to be the one to point out that their conservative ideas had never advanced their family's name one inch. She was going to try to be the good daughter, the responsible niece, the one who came and did her duty. Why? Because even though they all practically bored her to death, Beth loved them with a fierce passion she doubted she could ever duplicate in another relationship. But that's how they were, the Hamiltons and the Hayes, bonded by loyalty and an unseen force.

Beth suspected what everyone else already knew. That unseen force, that Lowcountry Force, the Goddess of the Island Gamble, if you like, was waiting for her. That's why surrender was the only choice. She guessed that any other course could be met with some strange but actual version of Universal Mockery until she gave in and became a willing player in the game. Welcome back to the chessboard! Get in position! Let's see, that would make Beth a pawn.

But, she thought, in spite of everything, it would be very interesting to see how the year would unfold. A year was a long time. Her intention was to avoid any and all controversy and every kind of chaos.

Beth laughed to herself realizing she had almost no real hand in the whole scenario anyway. She knew better. With the beckoning curl of their fingers, Aunt Maggie and her mother, Susan Hamilton Hayes, had coaxed her to the edge of their ancestral frying pan and she was crawling in like a lean slice of bacon. It wouldn't take long to cook her.

The taxi crossed over the Cooper River on the new bridge and next thing she knew, they were cruising down Coleman Boulevard, Mr. Brown's van straining to meet thirty miles an hour.

Stylistically, that is, if you wanted to impress anyone, his vehicle, that great hulking Chariot of Smoke and Fire, was not the optimal way to arrive in your hometown. Not that anyone beyond the gene pool was expecting her. But Beth thought it would have been awesome to be driving in some hot convertible wearing oversized sunglasses listening to some new music, something she knew all the words to so that she could sing at the top of her lungs. It would have been very, very awesome, she thought, if someone in another convertible, someone of the opposite sex who resembled a movie star perhaps, like Hugh Jackman, turned his head and the question of her true identity stopped him dead, all he could do was grin and follow her home, promising to rescue her from her dreary existence. Starting now. Lasting forever. Why not? A girl could dream, right?

But she wasn't of that ilk – the rescued damsel type. She was well, sort of the pathetically serious one, the one sporting the inexpensive copy of Tina Fey's eyeglasses, without the benefit of her jaw line or innate sense of style. Not to mention Tina Fey was really smart and funny while Beth was smart, her humor was dry and sometimes she was marginally dour. Okay, so she knew her eyeglasses were an infinitesimal attempt at stardom chic, but it was a start.

Beth left Charleston four years ago dressed like a Lowcountry princess in training and somehow fell into the student life, adopting a Beacon Hill slash Jack Kerouac kind of look that wasn't exactly Lilly Pulitzer. Lately, people knitted their eyebrows together at the sight of her and completely unsolicited, they offered her rubber bands to restrain her hair. She was the first one chosen as a lab partner and the last one invited on the conga line. Oh sure, she drank her share of beer in college and once she actually got completely toasted on tequila shots and had to spend two days in bed drinking Maalox and nibbling little bites of bananas dipped in peanut butter. But that was the exception, not the rule. Perhaps she had overdone the brainiac study thing in college and didn't look like a Carolina girl on her way to the Windjammer to shag all night – and that's a dance, not a sexual act – and well, so what? Beth was still a smart cookie who simply had yet to latch onto a lasting personal style.

Beth knew very early on that if she wanted to go to graduate school she was going to need a scholarship. So when all her girlfriends were out raising hell, dressed in bed sheets and acting like boozerellas, she was in her dorm memorizing biology spellings and studying finance. Unlike her friends and roommates who all seemed happy to have predestined futures, she viewed college as a ticket out of a life on that great southern hamster wheel. One generation hopped off and went to heaven and the next one hopped on, picking up where the others left off, running like idiots in Ray Bans and Top Siders until they dropped dead too. Not that she really had anything super serious against her family or that life, it was just that she wanted to see the world and think about things, be somebody different, do something great, like write the great American novel or at least have her blog picked up for publication before she was thirty. Was that too much to hope for? She was thinking now that maybe it was. At least, so far. Because if she was so Albert Einstein smart and destined for such global literary greatness, what was she doing with a deferred scholarship, sweating like a pig in the back of a clanking van, headed for a funky old haunted house on a sandbar? She already knew the answer but to reinforce her own commitment, she would breathe the words again. She was Beth Hayes, The Obedient One.

They crossed the Ben Sawyer Bridge and for the billionth time she wondered who Ben Sawyer was. It would have made sense if the bridge was named for Edgar Allen Poe, who actually lived on Sullivans Island for a while. But Ben Sawyer? She had never heard of any Sawyers on Sullivans Island. Like her mother always said, who were his people? But there you had one more small but significant enigma of Sullivans Island, a land washed in mystery and populated with the kind of characters Tennessee Williams would have loved to have known.

They were on the island then, and Beth was straining her neck to read the leash laws that were posted on the huge sign on the right. She didn't want Lola to get busted by the dog police for dropping her carte du visite in the wrong spot.

She rubbed her eyes. What was this? Oz? Perhaps it was the time of day but the houses seemed brighter, more well-defined and the palmettos and oleanders seemed greener, their branches and the edges of their fronds were sharper. The sky seemed to be a more vibrant shade of blue than she could recall. She took a deep breath and even with the van's air conditioning running full blast she could still smell plough mud, which was an acquired taste and dangerously addictive. In her dreams she actually smelled plough mud.

Despite the economy, there was gentrification everywhere but the kind that pleased her. Most of the old migrant worker cottages that flanked the road onto the island had been resurrected and transformed into million dollar futures with colorful lush window boxes of fuchsia geraniums, hot pink petunias and bushy asparagus ferns to prove it. It was amazing, she thought, what you could accomplish with the combination of elbow grease, a little money and a clear vision.

They came to the corner and she noticed that the gas station was under new ownership, gouging its customers an extra twenty cents per gallon for the privilege of convenience. That would never change no matter who owned it. The patrons of Dunleavys Pub, noisy families and happy dogs, spilled out onto the sidewalk picnic tables, laughing, talking and having lunch. Her stomach began to growl when she thought about their quesadillas. Judging from the parking lot, Durst Family Medicine appeared to be doing a brisk business. Probably legions of poison ivy and sunburn victims, she thought. People were walking to the beach pulling wagons loaded with gear, toddlers and iced water in their coolers and Beth thought she might like a walk on the beach that day to introduce Lola to the ocean.

The dependable rolling panorama of robust life gave her some relief. For as much as Beth embraced the twenty first century, like all true Charlestonians, she hated change of almost any kind. Commercial development made her suspicious and she generally ignored its creeping advance, hoping it might go away. If she had lived there full time she would have fought it with all her might. They could build all the Starbucks and Sonics in the world on Mount Pleasant and the adjoining island of Isle of Palms but something deep inside of her depended on the peninsula of Charleston and the entire length and breadth of Sullivans Island to remain the same. So far it was reasonably so.

They turned right on Middle Street, the Champs Elysse of the island, and began to head toward her house. In the time it might take to swallow a pill, she would be back, perched on the threshold of her childhood. Her stomach began to flutter.

Memories flooded her mind all at once – all of them together, cousins, aunts, uncles, all of them. She could see herself and the others as children, running around in their pajamas, spinning like helicopters in the silver dusk, fall down dizzy, chasing lightning bugs, scooping them into mayonnaise jars with holes punched in the top. The holes were made by her Uncle Grant's ice pick that they were forbidden to touch.

"Don't you children even think about laying a hand on that thing," he would say in a very stern voice to his boys. Then he would turn to Beth with a wink and she knew he wasn't so very mean as all that.

Summers! Searching the thicket for wild blackberries in the full sun of the day, filling coffee cans with them, and later, sunburned and freckled, how they feasted on hot sugary blackberry dumplings that her Aunt Maggie whipped up in her copper pots. There were literally hundreds of days when her boys, Mickey and Bucky and Beth caught crabs down by the rocks with Uncle Grant. They used chicken necks for bait, tied up in knots on weighted ends of cord. They caught blue crabs by the score, shrieking as they moved them ever so carefully from the line to the net to the basket, trying not to get pinched – The Revenge of the Ill Fated Crab. They shrieked again with excitement when one escaped the basket in the kitchen or on the porch, clicking its claws as it hurried sideways, looking for salvation. There was no salvation for those guys, no ma'am. They wound up steamed and dumped right from the colander on newspapers that were spread over the porch table, cracked apart and dipped in cocktail sauce. It made her laugh to remember. She realized then that she had not been crabbing in years. And she remembered how she had completely embraced her closely-knit family when she was young and how important it had been to her.

"Maybe I should take up crabbing again, Lola. Do you want to come and help?"

"What's that?" Mr. Brown said.

"Nothing. I was just talking to my dog."

"No reason why not."

They passed the hill fort then and Beth sighed with relief as it had not changed one lick, except for the children's park built in front of it that had sprung up some years ago. In her mind's eye, she could see herself, her cousins and a gang of island kids, sliding down it on flattened cardboard boxes and catching the devil from the town fathers for trespassing and sledding on the patchy grass. They had been very young, not quite ten, when Mickey had his first brush with the law.

"What do you think you're doing, son?"

Mickey looked up into the face of the Chief of Police and everyone thought he was going to wet his pants, right there in front of the whole world.

"Um, nothing?"

"You children get on out of here now, before I have to lock you all up! You hear me?"

Beth giggled to remember how they had abandoned their cardboard and ran in every direction to escape incarceration. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the Publisher:

1. Sullivans Island and the Island Gamble are very special to Dorothea Benton Frank and her characters. What does the island and their beloved home mean to the Hamilton and Hayes families? What does it mean to Beth? Do you have a special place-or a special retreat-of your own? If not, what kind of "Island Gamble" would you want? What would you call it?

2. When she returns from college in Boston, Beth remarks on how Sullivans Island has changed. Has your own hometown changed? If so, how? How do you feel about those changes?

3. When she arrives on Sullivans Island, Beth has some interesting thoughts about the place. "In her heart she felt the island really belonged to her mother's generation and those before her." BY the novel's end, do you think Beth has made her own claim to the island? Why?

4. The Hamilton/Hayes are extraordinarily close. What benefits does such closeness offer? Can there be a downside to being so close? How does this closeness influence Beth as she grows into a woman? How does Beth see her family and her role in it? What factors influence her viewpoint? How does distance affect her perspective: both her own, going to college in Boston, and her mother Susan's when she goes to Paris?

5. Beth also muses about her family: "The last four years had prepared her to live her own life, independent of her tribe. Isn't that why she went to college a thousand miles away in the first place?" Is that the purpose of college? Is Beth more or less independent by the story's end?

6. Describe Beth's relationship with the women in her life: her mother, Susan, her aunts Maggie and Sophie, her friend Cecily, even her editor Barbara Farlie, their importance to her and how they shape her.

7. Determined to do her duty to the family, Beth's "intention was to avoid any and all controversy and every kind of chaos." Why does it seem that the best of intentions often go awry?

8. Beth was long wary of intimacy with men. "In her mind there was nothing more dangerous that what her mother called love." How does this mindset affect her when she meets Max Mitchell? Discuss Beth's affair with him. Why is she attracted to him?

9. What does Beth think about Woody Morrison? How do her relationships with Max and Woody contrast? What does each man offer her?

10. Beth and Susan both lost their fathers at a young age. How does this loss color different aspects of their lives?

11. Susan had always dreamed of living in Paris, but circumstances cut her stay short. Yet Susan isn't disappointed. Why? Is it always better to realize our dreams? Is there a benefit in leaving some unfilled?

12. Dorothea Benton Frank has a gift for bringing the wild beauty and magic of the Lowcountry to life. How do you picture the Lowcountry? Is it a place you'd like to visit? If you have been there, how do your impressions compare to those in the novel?

13. One of the charms of the Island Gamble is that it is haunted. Do you believe in ghosts? Have you had any interesting experiences with the supernatural?

14. The author touches on the subject of race with grace and compassion. As Beth enjoys her close friendship with Cecily she thinks of the strictures placed upon her mother and Cecily's grandmother, Livvie. How else have changing social mores freed us over the years?

15. Family, independence, love, marriage, race, heartbreak, acceptance, trust, and change, are all themes interwoven in the novel. Using examples from the book, explain the role of each and how they evolve in the story's arc.

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub


Why and Why Now?

By Dorothea Benton Frank

The world is blowing up around us. Retirement accounts have evaporated; people can't even afford their own divorce. Wall Street, the housing crisis, credit markets, Detroit, scams, unemployment and the accompanying terrors of it all! I have been so bombarded with bad news. I am certain my readers have been too. So, how can we make ourselves feel better? One answer is to escape through a book to revisit a funky little sandbar like Sullivans Island, a place steeped in history and populated with the kind of characters Tennessee Williams would have loved to have known.

This enchanted island is a place where what you have is enough, where shiny things don't matter and your grandmother's wooden spoon is a treasure to hold. Like Oz, the greens are greener, edges are sharper and the water and sky are impossible shades of blue. Flip flops and sandals are the only shoes you need and the fragrance of homegrown tomatoes and jasmine in bloom takes your breath away. You can eat fish that was swimming that morning. Watch a sunset so spectacular you'll be brought to tears. Walk the beach at night pondering the Milky Way overhead. Sit on the dark porch of the Island Gamble and sort out your life with old friends. These are just a few of the things RETURN TO SULLIVANS ISLAND offers to save us from the dreary outside world.

And then there's family. In RETURN TO SULLIVANS ISLAND I plucked the daughter of the protagonist, Susan Hamilton Hayes from the original story and dropped her front and center in the sequel. Watch and see what happens when Beth's whole family averts their eyes to pursue their own dreams and she is left to come of age in a hurricane of her own making. Fortunes are at risk, hearts are broken, disaster strikes. But the magic of the island and the spirits of their ancestral home bring them all back together as the power of their love for one another finds forgiveness and healing.

Why would I write a sequel to SULLIVANS ISLAND, perhaps my most popular book, knowing sequels can be the kiss of death? I wrote RETURN TO SULLIVANS ISLAND because I adore the place, I have missed those characters and I believe with all my heart they still have lessons to teach us. And because, in these challenging times, I wanted to give my readers a story I hope they will all love because success is not always measured in money. You'll be the judge of that.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Dottie can do better!"by Jeannie W. (see profile) 08/18/09

Having read many of DBF's novels, I was extremely disappointed in Return to Sullivan's Island!
This was a fluff book.....not in Frank's usually eloquent style. Maybe a beach read, but not
... (read more)

  "Not one of her best!"by Laura N. (see profile) 08/18/09

While the book kept my interest until the end I just did not think that this was one of Ms. Frank's best works. Knowing that she can do so much better I was disappointed. It's an o.k. read for the summer... (read more)

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