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Carleton based Back Alleys on her experiences teaching in Joplin. It's about a young woman named Allen ("she always had the funny name," Langdon jokes) who becomes close, possibly too close, to some of her students on the eve of World War II.
"The theme of the book is the loss of innocence," Langdon says. "All the students are going to be leaving. The whole world is about to change, and there's nothing anyone can do about it."
By 1997, Carleton had nearly finished the book. "There was a lot of writing and rewriting," recalls Langdon. "She was an intense rewriter, very fussy with word choices and all that."
"She told me she was getting ready to shop around for a publisher," Beasley remembers.
A few months later, though, Carleton suffered a stroke. She fell down and hit her head on the stone floor of her house. She lay there for several hours until a neighbor found her. She was never able to speak again.
When she died, just after Christmas of 1999, her friend Calloway became her literary executor. Most of her books and papers went to her nephew, Carleton Beasley, Susan's father, who lived in Pierce City, Missouri, just east of Joplin.
In May 2003, a tornado swept through Pierce City and destroyed most of the town, including Carleton Beasley's house. Carleton's papers were lost, including the manuscript of the mysterious second novel. ("It makes any writer think about storing their papers in two different places," comments Jane Smiley.)
Or so her family thought.
In March of this year, Charlie Langdon wrote about the reissue of The Moonflower Vine in his column in the Durango Herald. He also reported that, while sorting through Carleton's papers after her death, Calloway had discovered the lost manuscript.
On his way down to Mexico for an extended vacation, Calloway left a copy of The Back Alleys of Spring with Langdon, who read it immediately. In his opinion, Back Alleys is "a good book. It's not as well-written as The Moonflower Vine, but it's publishable."
When Calloway returns from Mexico, says Langdon, he plans to search for a publisher or, if necessary, publish it himself.
Beasley is eager to read The Back Alleys of Spring. Reading Carleton, she says, is almost like talking with her again. "I finished re-reading The Moonflower Vine last night," she says. "It made my heart sad, in a good way. It made me miss her all over again."
Literary revivals, Smiley observes, are nothing new. In the decades following his death, few people read Charles Dickens. George Eliot was largely forgotten, at least until the 1920s when Virginia Woolf wrote an essay in praise of Middlemarch. Smiley and 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel may have the same effect on The Moonflower Vine.
Brad Bigelow, who lives in Brussels, Belgium, and works for NATO, has made a hobby out of tracking down forgotten books and writing about them on his website, the Neglected Books Page. Soon after he read Smiley's book, he sought out The Moonflower Vine.
"It's had the most consistent reaction," he says. "A number of readers who come across it rate it as one of their favorite books."
Yuval Taylor, an editor at Chicago Review Press, read about The Moonflower Vine in 13 Ways and on Bigelow's website and became curious. "We've reprinted a lot of out-of-print books," he says. "We look for people who say they love a book, who've read it every year and give copies to their friends."
In the fall of 2007, Taylor contacted Susan Beasley, who, along with her sister, owns the rights to The Moonflower Vine. He offered her a modest contract for a new edition. Beasley had no experience with publishing and talked to a neighbor who was also a writer. He referred her to his agent, Denise Shannon. Shannon Googled the book and found herself at Bigelow's site.
"I said, 'That's extraordinary!'" Shannon remembers. "I went online and bought a copy. It's a very modern-style book that people would enjoy reading today. I told Susan, 'Let's try something here; let's go for a bigger press.'"
Three publishers bid for the rights, which finally went to Terry Karten, an editor at Harper Perennial. Karten was impressed both by the book's early history as a bestseller and the devotion of its fans. She enlisted Smiley to write a foreword and reprinted Bigelow's Neglected Books Page essay in the back.
Karten has high hopes for this latest incarnation of The Moonflower Vine. "There's a lot of buzz percolating out there," she says. "The book is really selling." Despite a substantial first printing of 18,500 copies, Harper has had to go back to press.
The book has received favorable reviews in the Chicago Tribune and the website the Daily Beast, and has been chosen for the American Booksellers Association's Indie Next List and as a Midwest Connection book by the Midwestern Booksellers Association. Shannon has sold the foreign rights in five countries and plans to pitch the book to Oprah's Book Club.
"Everywhere we go, we meet booksellers who know the book," Karten says. "It's a classic and a cult book. It has legions of readers across the country, and it will have many more. It's a book that travels. It has a longer life than most books that get published. Somehow it keeps popping up."
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