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Scholes Young explores Hannibal, Twain, friendships in first novel

Duane Bonifer
08/28/2017
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Melissa Scholes Young ’97 said she was “relieved” when she completed the manuscript for Flood, her debut novel.

Those who read her novel will be more than relieved when they finish it – they will be grateful to have been immersed in an engaging and poignant story about early 21st century Midwest life on the Mississippi River.

Set in 2003, Flood is the story of Laura Brooks, who has returned to her native Hannibal, Mo., during the summer, which coincides with her 10-year high school senior class reunion and the annual Tom and Becky Program, a contest that celebrates two of Mark Twain’s most celebrated characters every July 4. Laura returns unemployed, unattached and uncertain about her future, but she hopes to find direction by reconnecting with some of those she left behind, especially her best friend, Rose.

Scholes Young will return to Monmouth on Aug. 31 to give two public talks. At 11 a.m., she will address the first “Introduction to Liberal Arts” convocation of the fall semester in a talk titled “What Are the Liberal Arts?” Then at 6:30 p.m. in the Morgan Room in Poling Hall, Scholes Young will read from Flood and sign copies of the novel.

From short story to novel

Flood started as a short story about the friendship between Laura and Rose. But in the course of researching the history of the Mississippi River – whose unpredictable course also figures as a major character in the novel – Scholes Young said she realized that she had material to write what would become a richly layered story about friendship and place.

“Laura and Rose have one of those friendships where people just know you better than you know yourself because they have known you at all the different phases of your life,” Scholes Young said in a recent telephone interview.

Because the story is set in the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens, the legacies of some of Mark Twain’s most famous characters – Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher and Huckleberry Finn – also loom large throughout the narrative.

“I wanted to write a female Tom and Huck story, a friendship where they covet what the other one has and yet they can’t quit each other,” said Scholes Young, who grew up in Hannibal.

Each chapter of Flood is preceded by a brief story about Hannibal, Twain or one of Twain’s characters, which helps deepen the narrative to a place.

“They are a bit of a baton between the setting and the way that the setting really becomes a character in the book,” said Scholes Young. “They introduce you, they tell a little story about Mark Twain himself, and then that is woven throughout the chapter.”

Leaving Hannibal

Not unlike her hometown’s famous literary son, Scholes Young has moved a lot since she left Hannibal. After graduating from Monmouth with a degree in history, she moved 18 times.

“Mark Twain said that travel is fatal to prejudice,” said Scholes Young.

Her travels included earning a master’s degree in education at Stetson (Fla.) University, teaching for a couple years in Brazil and earning a master of fine arts degree in creative writing at Southern Illinois University. She currently teaches writing at American University in Washington, D.C. She and her husband live in Maryland with their children and a chocolate labrador named Huckleberry Finn.

It was when she was in Brazil that Scholes Young had time to dive more deeply into Twain’s writings.

“His work is what I took with me,” she said. “Because I had time, I read so much. And so that was when I really read his work for the first time. Even though I had grown up with Twain all around me, there is sort of a mythology about Twain in the town that has more to do with the stories than the actual literature.”

Twain’s influences

Scholes Young extensively researched Twain while working on Flood. She said she especially admires Twain because “he is a boundary pusher,” pointing out that he was one of the early writers to experiment with magical realism.

“I think it has taken us this long to really understand his work,” she said. “People are still discovering him.”

As Scholes Young points out, Twain’s work can be deceiving.

“His work is digestible and so welcoming,” she said. “And of course there is social criticism, but, gosh, it just sounds like someone is talking to you when you read him. It’s his ability to write dialect. It’s his ability to write common people. And yet just as you are laughing, he sort of gut-punches you with a really, really harsh social criticism about the community. I think that humor, though, makes it digestible.”

Scholes Young’s Flood includes sharp social criticism. In the novel, one character who competes in the annual Tom and Becky Program is an African American girl – something that has yet to happen in Hannibal, whose population is more than 90 percent white. Through the Tom and Becky Program, Flood also shows how Hannibal can also be sharply divided along socioeconomic lines.

“I think the Tom and Becky Program is an enormous opportunity in a town like Hannibal. These kids get to travel, they get to represent Hannibal, they study Mark Twain, they read the literature – I think those are all good things,” she said. “I think that when you have traditions that serve the entire town, we should keep them. And when we have traditions that exclude parts of the town, we should question them. I think a lot of times we’re simply unaware of it. We just do what’s been done.”

‘Really proud of my hometown’

Flood was launched in June in Hannibal, and Scholes Young said that residents in her hometown “have been really, really welcoming of the book.”

“I have always been really proud of my hometown,” she said. “I feel like I’ve always been an ambassador for Hannibal.”

Scholes Young, who is at work on a second novel, said she is unsure yet whether she is a regional writer in the tradition of popular authors such as Bobbie Ann Mason and Wendell Berry. But she knows that she is a writer about a kind of place.

“I know that I’m a rural-culture writer,” she said. “I know that my characters are always from rural culture. … I feel that I write about rural culture best. Rural culture is just something I don’t know how not to write. That’s what all of my characters sound like.”