Though The Tilted World is set against the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, Prohibition-era bootlegging plays as significant a part in the novel as the rising threat of the mighty Mississippi. Hobnob is a small town on an endangered levee, the site of a lucrative illegal still for Jesse Holliver and his wife, Dixie Clay. Meanwhile, the numbers of the homeless and incidents of random crime increase with the onslaught of disaster, one the federal government has yet to address sufficiently. While Jesse is busy attending the expansion of his financial network and romantic interests, Dixie Clay runs the still, a task she doesn’t question, distracted by the grief of losing her firstborn.
Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, who has his eye on the presidency, courts the press relentlessly, disturbed both by the rising tide and by the disappearance of two agents sent to Hobnob to run the moonshiners to ground. Ham Johnson and Ted Ingersoll arrive in town in the guise of engineers but are actually charged with locating the missing government agents. Eventually their paths converge with devious Jesse Holliver on the banks of the Mississippi, but Ingersoll has inadvertently compromised the investigation by delivering an orphaned infant to Dixie Clay on the recommendation of a local shop owner. Ingersoll is unaware of the fact that the woman who gratefully accepts the gift of a homeless baby is the wife of a notorious bootlegger.
The authors establish the softer natures of Ingersoll and Dixie Clay early in the novel: Ingersoll refuses to leave the baby to die, determined to find a home for the child; Dixie Clay is the victim of a bad marriage, fearful of an increasingly demanding and erratic husband, though aware that she is participating in an illegal activity: “You ain’t seen the end of bad. You ain’t even seen the beginning of the end.” There isn’t much doubt about the fate of the missing agents who have run afoul of Holliver. Johnson and Ingersoll draw closer to their prey only to learn of yet another threat: a plan to bomb the levee at Hobnob and destroy the town. Events accelerate, confrontations are imminent and (cue organ music) Ingersoll realizes that he has fallen inappropriately in love with Dixie Clay.
While the flood forms the critical backbone of the novel, the authors fail to paint a larger picture of the scope of this disaster, the infamy of the federal failure, and the disproportionate treatment favoring whites over blacks by agencies sent to distribute aid and those who enforce order. Instead we are caught up in a smaller drama, stopping the saboteur, arresting Jesse Holliver and facilitating the romance between the federal agent and the bootlegger gal. Franklin brings his masculine, hard-edged sensibility to the story, Fennelly providing the more sensitive insights of a woman in a bad marriage given another chance at motherhood. The grittier parts are successful and drive the narrative, but Dixie Clay’s chapters, meant to explore the woman’s perspective, serve instead to interrupt the novel’s rhythm until the conclusion, when the flood waters determine the pace of events. Disappointing, as well, is the easy resolution of the affair and the legal ramifications for Dixie Clay. Overall, this writing partnership has given us an entertaining tale, but the usual flaws of such an endeavor remain.