The Fennel Family Papers

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE FENNEL FAMILY PAPERS is William Baldwin’s second novel; like his first, THE HARD TO CATCH MERCY, it takes place in the American South. The setting in THE FENNEL FAMILY PAPERS is not only a landscape of unruly vegetation and treacherous water, but a crooked house resembling a ship and a crooked lighthouse on an island not far from it. In this environment, the remnant of the Fennel family dwells. Their ancestors, under a patent from King James II, tended the “Fennel light” warning ships of the Dog Tooth Shoal, as Baldwin calls it.

The hero, Paul Danvers, is a young history professor whose first contact with real life outside of books is the Fennel family. First he has sex, and falls in love, with Ginny Fennel, one of his students, then endures the violent eccentricities of Ginny’s great aunt Camilla and her uncle Leroy Ramona, as well as the magic of Da Bena, the Fennels’ housekeeper and nurse. She is also a Fennel herself, since her grandfather was Captain Jack Fennel, the keeper of the Fennel light from 1854 to 1910.

Jack Fennel and his sister are the key, as it were, to the mystery of the Caladium Keyhole, the focus of Paul Danver’s research and of his hope for tenure. The Keyhole is a part of the South Carolina coast near the Fennel light that the Confederacy used to run the Union blockade in the Civil War. When Virginia married the commander of the Confederate garrison protecting the Keyhole, she cozened him into...

(The entire section is 444 words.)