Dorothea Benton Frank has written 12 New York Times best-sellers. In early June, her 13th novel, “Porch Lights,” was released. Next week, Frank, a native of South Carolina, will visit Kansas for the first time for a book signing and talk at Watermark Books.
“I’ll have to wear some red shoes,” Frank said jokingly. “I’m known for a lot of humor. I find humor is a terrific tool.”
Frank’s latest novel takes place on Sullivan’s Island, S.C., where she was raised. The three-mile island boasts a historic past, both military and literary. Just a few miles off the coast of Charleston, the island was home to the U.S. Military. From 1827 to 1828, Edgar Allan Poe was a soldier on the island.
“Porch Lights” interweaves tales of pirates and Poe into a 21st-century story of the love of a mother and grandmother for a troubled boy. Charlie, 10, just lost his firefighter father. He travels with his widowed mother, Jackie, from his home in New York City to visit his maternal grandmother in South Carolina. The journey is bittersweet for Jackie. She loves the island, but she is apprehensive about staying with her mother and renewing their past struggles.
“Mothers and daughters are frequently at odds with each other, but little boys break your heart,” said Frank, a mother of two.
Frank decided to make the mother in “Porch Lights” materialistic, while the daughter, Jackie, is a military nurse stationed in Afghanistan.
“She’s a straight-up warrior. They have little in common except the love of this child,” Frank said.
Jackie’s idea of exercise is going for a hike with a 50-pound backpack on; her mother relishes a walk on the beach. But despite their polarities, the women are once again forced together. The story is told from both women’s points of view.
Frank, like the characters in her books, knows the island well and cherishes its sea-salt smell and lapping waves. Having spent much of the last three decades in New Jersey, Frank cannot get the island off her mind.
“Whenever I have felt troubled, I imagine myself on Sullivan’s Island, and I feel better,” Frank said. “It’s a wonderful place. It’s very peaceful.”
Frank and her four siblings grew up in a home that had remained in their family for almost a century. Although that home is no longer hers, Frank continues to vacation just two blocks away. She remembers driving into town to attend Catholic school, then going home to run along the beach in flip-flops and a T-shirt.
While in school, Frank read Poe’s “The Raven,” “Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” She also soaked in Vincent Price movies that were loosely based on Poe’s works. Realizing that she wanted to weave Poe into this book, Frank decided to make Charlie’s grandmother a history buff.
“For a little, tiny sandbar, it’s got lots of history,” Frank said.
Although the island is small, its historic credentials are large. Fort Moultrie, on the western side of the island, was in continuous service for coastal defense for 171 years. Now run by the National Park Service, Fort Moultrie operates a visitors center that has erected and restored facilities that range from a 1776 Palmetto Log Fort to a World War II Harbor Entrance Control Post.
Bill Martin, the public information officer at Fort Moultrie, said that along with the fort’s military history, information about Edgar Allan Poe is listed in the park handbook and in a brochure.
Poe’s time at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island is said to have inspired this great 19th-century American novelist. It is believed that three of his stories were inspired by this location: “The Gold Bug,” “The Balloon-Hoax” and “The Oblong Box.”
“The local legend has it that the so-called Gold Bug tree is on the island,” Martin said.
Frank draws on this rich history of her hometown to weave into her modern-day novel.