Author’s new book an ode to returning to Sullivan’s Island
Photos by Steve Rosamilia
When Dorothea Benton Frank talks to you—whether face to face, while you sit in a crowd of adoring fans, or as you read one of her books—you feel like she’s your best friend. But not just any best friend. She is that best friend. The one you’ve always wanted; fun, vivacious, kind and above all, side-splittingly funny.
Her wit is worthy of a standup comedy routine, but in its home on the pages of her novels it is free to run rampant, losing only that gorgeous Southern drawl in translation.
The 64-year-old Sullivan’s Island native has made a career out of that wit, writing about the pluses and pitfalls of life in the South, specifically life in South Carolina, even more specifically life on Sullivan’s Island. There’s no shortage of material. The author of 17 books over a career that started in her early 40s.
Frank’s first novel was the deeply personal “Sullivan’s Island.” It sold over a million copies and landed at No. 9 on The New York Times’ bestseller list. Her subsequent novels followed suit, making her arguably one of Sullivan’s Island’s most famous living residents.
Although, there’s a catch. She doesn’t actually live here anymore, at least not full-time. Yet. And it’s that fact which is the inspiration for her newest novel, the sassy and sumptuous “All Summer Long.”
“I started here and I’m going to end here,” she told the assembled crowd at a recent event hosted by Battery Gadsden Cultural Center on Sullivan’s Island. “Like a salmon, I’m coming home. It’s been a very long road from 2424 Middle St. to this house. It’s been pockmarked with a lot of heartbreak and struggle—but it ended up alright.”
The road to “this house” (her new home on the tip of the island) started the moment she left this “dinky little island” in 1969.
Desperate to get off what she saw as a literally suffocating place, she pursued a highly successful career in fashion retail, first in Atlanta, then San Francisco and finally New York. But when her mother, Dorothea Blanchard, passed away in 1992, her despair at the impending sale of the family home drove her to a new career, one she hoped would provide her with the funds to buy that home.
As is often the case for her own protagonists however, something rather important stood in her way—her husband. She had met Peter Richard Frank in New York, married him and settled down in Montclair, N.J., to pop out two lovely children.
“He said if you want your mother’s house you need to go get off your fanny and buy it yourself,” she told the Island Eye News in an interview in her home on Middle Street. “Because I’m not going to spend my money to sit down there and listen to your crazy family tell the same stories over and over again.”
So she became a New York Times bestselling author. A far cry from the four career paths she had been told were open to her by the nuns at Bishop England high school (“a teacher, a nun, a nurse or a secretary”). While she was too late to buy her mother’s home, she was able to buy herself a beach house, then upgrade that one, and today she is settling into perhaps one of the most spectacular homes on the island.
“It’s shame it’s sinking into the ocean,” she says. “Nothing wrong with it that 8 billion dollars won’t fix.” But to her it’s perfect. “I leave this big mess of civilization (in New Jersey) and trickle down, until I finally get here to the tip of the island.”
Life on the Page
In “All Summer Long,” she flip-flopped the male and female roles— her heroine is a New York businesswoman and the husband is a dreamy academic who grew up on Sullivan’s Island. They made a deal that when he retired they would move to Sullivan’s, and the story unfolds as the city girl settles into life on the sleepy island, rats and all.
“I want to come back,” says Frank with some passion. “But my husband’s got his fingernails in the asphalt at Newark airport. He continues to work, and looks like he’s never going to stop. I’ve told him 5,000 times I do not want to be buried in New Jersey. I do not want my obituary to read ‘of Montclair, New Jersey.’ I want it to say ‘of Sullivan’s Island.’ I tell him I didn’t marry you to live in New Jersey for the rest of my life so you’ve got to get me out of here.”
She’s certainly created the most idyllic escape to lure him with, in the big white house at the tip of the island, where the container ships battle with the yachts for dominance, so close you feel like you could reach out and pluck them off the water.
“All Summer Long” reads like a (realistic) love letter to Sullivan’s Island, and Isle of Palms. When the heroine and her husband arrive, Frank waxes lyrical about the beauty of the Lowcountry, but also throws in a few characteristic zingers, including this one aimed at the Isle of Palms police department:
“They crept through the business district, on the lookout for the police who were infamous for pulling people over if they drove one hair over the speed limit. Sure enough, they spotted a patrol car hidden behind an overgrown oleander. “Shouldn’t they be out solving crimes?” she asked. “That’s the whole problem,” Nick said. “They don’t have enough crime here.”
Many of her favorite places get name checks, including Long Island Café and Code del Pesce (“My favorite place in the world”). Sullivan’s Island Fire Department gets a shout out for frying turkeys, and the entire Sullivan’s business district gets its moment in ink:
“Moments later they rolled through the tiny business district of Sullivan’s Island. A casual observer might have thought the restaurants were giving away free food. Poe’s Tavern and Home Team BBQ were filled to capacity with patrons, while scores of other people waited around for a table or crossed Middle Street, paying no mind to the traffic. Maybe they were getting ice cream or a newspaper or perhaps they had a hair appointment at Beauty and the Beach….”
Writing about Sullivan’s Island helped her come back to this place, which still holds her heart.
“When I come across that causeway somehow I’m a girl again. When I’m here I sleep better—simple things become extraordinarily exquisite,” she told the crowd gathered under the bright red and white striped tent at Battery Gadsden last Wednesday.
“There’s no greater joy I’ve ever known than the comfort and joy of belonging to this island. Woody Wood asked me if he’d missed anything by staying here on this island all his life. And my answer was no. He had not missed anything of real consequence. Everything you really value in this life is right here on this little sandbar.”
Finding a truth that needs to be told
Frank’s novels are so successful because they speak to their readers about a truth in their own lives. And most importantly, there’s no sugar coating. Frank, tells it like it is, in technicolor glory, rats and all.
“I definitely write what I’m living to some extent,” she says, and that honesty is truly tangible in the words on her pages. She says that for each novel she seeks to tell a truth that needs to be told. “There are a few things going on [in ‘All Summer Long’],” she says.
“But the one that comes to mind is long term marriage. I was 31 when I got married. I’m now 33 years into it. I think about 10 years ago my husband had a moment where he thought is this really what I want? And I had the same moment.
“There comes a time when you look at your life and say I’m going to be dead soon and am I living the life I wanted to live? Am I happy, what have I not done? You look around and you think about everything. I adore my husband. You recommit and you commit in a new way— that’s deeper… There’s a turning point in long term relationships where you accept the other person for who they are and what they bring to the table and say you’re going to make yourself happy with it.
“This book is about long term love and it’s about living up to an agreement and it’s about discovering you’re in love when you’ve never been in love before. But it’s not a romance novel at all—it’s another one of these wakeup calls of mine. ‘Listen you’d better wake up or you’re going to blow this.’”
Frank says she will be back home for good within the year, something every islander who knows and loves “Dottie” will look forward to (after all at least half of them are related to her). As the event at Battery Gadsden illustrated, she brings a wonderful sensibility to life here, along with a healthy dose of self-self-effacing humor.
“You know, Sullivan’s Island has become a bit rule driven,” she says mischievously, sitting in her dining room looking out over the beach she used to run across “like a Geechee brat” as a child. “I think someone in the town government is having an affair with someone in the sign-making business. I have never seen so many signs!”
“When I move back, I’m going to lead a movement for Sullivan’s Island to secede from the United States,” she says with a twinkle in her bright blue eyes. “There’ll be no dog rules, no guns allowed and we’ll open the drawbridge once a week to go out for supplies. Other than that we’re all going to live here in peace and quiet. A big love-in right here on Sullivan’s Island.”
“All Summer Long,” published in hardcover by HarperCollins, May 31, 2016. Pick up a copy at Barnes & Noble in Towne Center or on Amazon.com. Look for a longer version of this interview in the next issue of SiP Magazine—www.sipmagazinesc.com.