A Review of
Cradle in the Oak
Candace Cox Wheeler
Fourth generation Biloxian pens thrilling, accurate historical novel of one woman’s quest
By Deanne Love Stephens
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
Candace Cox Wheeler’s debut novel “Cradle in the Oak” is an exciting look at life along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the early twentieth-century, as described through the eyes of Carrie Burn, an indefatigable young woman who is the central character in this work.
Inspired by a real life person, Wheeler captures the spirit of a woman whose determination is unyielding as she navigates through her challenges. Wheeler weaves the storyline of her historic novel and the life of its main character into the fabric of Biloxi, a small-town coastal locale, and the majestic live oak trees that stand as its sentinels. She deftly incorporates the culture and livelihoods of maritime pursuits to explain the economy of Biloxi, a city once labeled “The Seafood Capitol of the World” for its yields of shrimp and oysters.
The geography of coastal Mississippi and the maritime niche of the Mississippi Sound are critical to her novel, and the author describes them as someone who has enjoyed their beauty and benefited from their advantages over a lifetime. Wheeler is a fourth-generation Biloxian.
In this suspense-filled novel Wheeler expertly outlines the harrowing adventures that forced Carrie Burn from the safety of Biloxi, as she desperately searches for her children after her husband abandons her and absconds with them, a transgression both difficult to comprehend and a societal offense during the timeframe of Wheeler’s novel.
The author describes the challenges facing Carrie as she embarks on several quests to locate her two sons in order to bring them home to Biloxi. Wheeler particularly provides descriptive narrative in telling her readers about the harrowing situations Carrie faced while traveling unchaperoned, a social taboo in the early nineteenth-century.
The tales of how Carrie overcame those hurdles are highlights of the book. In these chapters, Wheeler portrays Carrie as a woman determined to challenge contemporary gender roles and reclaim her children. Wheeler simultaneously examines how Carrie experiences professional growth as a woman of her times but more importantly how Carrie realizes that she is the true navigator of her life. She is in charge. Carrie lived in a world of conventionality and one in which women were not yet allowed the civil right to vote. Nevertheless, Wheeler creates an intrepid young woman who blossoms because of her newly-found inner strength and independence. Carrie Burns, in the end, finds herself and true happiness.
This exciting book is a historical novel at its best. Wheeler built her novel and created its authenticity because of her historic research and familiarity with the coastal culture of Biloxi. The author meticulously painted Biloxi in the early twentieth century when beautiful “white-winged” schooners plied the waters of the Mississippi Sound and a cacophony of languages could be heard along local city streets.
The depth of research that Wheeler completed appears on every page and anchors the narrative and timeline, from local family names, city streets, seafood companies, tourist sites, and memorable events such as the terrific hurricane of 1906. The small town had become the cultural nexus of the Coast because of its multitude of immigrants working in the seafood industry when Carrie’s story takes place, and Wheeler captures that cultural gumbo well.
She spends much time discussing the seafood industry in the area and informs the reader that it was the economic force of the city. She mentions actual seafood companies that once existed and includes various immigrant groups who worked in the seafood factories, shucking oysters or peeling shrimp. Many descendants of the immigrant laborers and factory owners call Biloxi their home today. Her familiarity with the cuisine of the region based on the seafood culture and foods introduced by the various immigrant groups is also apparent when she describes the seafood and local foods such as pusharatas enjoyed by her characters. She based the names of many of the characters in her book on a multitude of real people who lived in Biloxi during this era in order to capture the cultural history of the area.
From the inspiration of a 1906 newspaper clipping, Candace Cox Wheeler has created an historic novel that can be enjoyed not only for the intriguing and suspenseful escapades of its main character, but also for the historical research that underpins it. Wheeler is to be congratulated.
Deanne Love Stephens is a Professor of History at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her first book was “Plague Among the Magnolias: The 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic in Mississippi” with the University of Alabama Press, and her second book, “The Mississippi Gulf Coast Seafood Industry: A People’s History” from University Press of Mississippi launches in June 2021.