Thursday, August 24, 2023

This Other Eden, by Paul Harding


W.W. Norton, 2023
210 pp


"Terrible how terribly good intentions turn out every time." 

I love finding novels that are based on, or in this case "inspired by,"  real events,  especially when I am completely ignorant of the facts behind the fiction.  The story found in Paul Harding's This Other Eden, now longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, is one of these, with the action taking place in Maine on a small island, "hardly three hundred feet across the channel from the mainland."   

Back in 1793, Benjamin Honey " -- American, Bantu, Igbo -- born enslaved -- freed or fled at fifteen..." and his wife Patience, "nee Raferty, Galway Girl..." arrived on what would later be called Apple Island,  and after settling in planted the apple seeds he'd so carefully cherished and taken care of over the years.   He had come there with a childhood memory of his mother and time spent in an orchard, also remembering the "fragrance of the trees and their fruit," as well as a "vision of the garden to which he meant to return."  For Benjamin, that garden was Eden, "no mystery."   Fast forward to 1911; Esther Honey, Benjamin and Patience's great-granddaughter, now has the role of family matriarch.  Since Benjamin's time,  other people outside of the Honey family had come to live on the island as well, with blood running "from every continent but Antarctica."   The children help out with the chores and also roam freely, often with the island's three dogs which are fed from whatever scraps the families can muster.   It is a small but close-knit, mixed-race community where the living is on the hardscrabble side, yet for the reader, there is every sense that Apple Island is some sort of haven, a refuge from the outside world for these people.   
Also on the island during the summers is Matthew Diamond,  a missionary who serves as  teacher at the small school there.   Esther finds herself with misgivings about the situation, certain that 
"there would not be a soul left on the island within five years. She'd heard it all before, threats and promises both, threats being far more common than promises, but either way no one had actually set foot on the island to see out their intentions, well-meaning or otherwise."
She also believed that

 "no good ever came of being noticed by mainlanders, which always meant being noticed by white people -- plain white, her mother and aunts and cousins called them, to distinguish them from the lighter-skinned Apple islanders..."

Diamond means well, and takes special interest in his students, including Tabitha Honey, who "took to Latin as if she were not learning it but remembering it,"  Emily Sockalexis, whose skill in mathematics has Diamond scrambling to "relearn" in order to keep up with her, and then there's Esther's grandson Ethan, who has a natural talent for drawing.   At the same time, as Diamond writes to a friend,  inasmuch as his faith tells him  that "all men are his brothers, all women my sisters, all souls my family,"  he has a "visceral, involuntary repulsion" when he is in "the presence of a living Negro."   But events begin to take a dark  turn when, as noted in the dustjacket blurb, Diamond's "presence attracts the attention of authorities on the mainland," many of them who subscribe to the contemporarily-popular pseudoscience of eugenics; journalists' photos also draw negative  attention to the islanders.   Trying to help, Diamond begs a friend to sponsor Ethan, whose light skin allows him to pass for white and secures him a spot off the island where he can continue to grow his artistic abilities. Esther is on board with this idea, knowing that he has a chance in the outside world, and Ethan makes his way off the island and to a life Esther hopes will be filled with promise and reward.  But Diamond's attempt at helping Ethan sparks tragedy; back on the island, this small community is rocked by  events that unfold quickly, all of which will result in devastating consequences for each and every person who lives there.  

children from the Malaga Island schoolhouse -- from
Greenhut Galleries

I've read this book twice now, once before I'd researched the reality behind the novel  and then after, and I have to admit that the second read with the knowledge I'd gained helped me to appreciate it more.   The historical material is horrifying and yet fascinating.*  The real and long-buried story belongs to the people of Malaga Island, who in 1912 were forcibly evicted by the state from their homes  due to "a chain of tragic events," as explained in Atlas Obscura, "spurred by the racist 'science' of eugenics married with political corruption."  It was also, in part, caused by ignorance and the contemporary  abhorrence of miscegenation.   Eviction of the living was bad enough, with some islanders being diagnosed as "mentally incompetent" and "remanded to" the Maine School for the Feeble Minded, but it got worse -- the small cemetery was dug up, the remains were combined and they were taken away from Malaga Island altogether.  While these events feature in This Other Eden, Harding doesn't exactly rewrite the story, choosing instead to focus more on a handful of people on the fictional Apple Island.  I haven't been there but his depiction of the island seems true to life, down to the old shell middens, and  he's bestowed his characters with distinct and individual voices along with the quirks that make them human.   I have to be honest here:  while buzzing through different online interviews with the author, I gleaned a bit of understanding regarding the author's focus on art in this novel  -- as he stated in an interview at Lit Hub
"As I do with all my novels, everything I'm reading, all the paintings I see, all the music I'm listening to, everything somehow or another gets thrown into the manuscript, in its earliest stages"

but in my own humble opinion, his time spent with Ethan's slowly-growing awareness of the beauty of the natural world and learning how to capture it in his art just went on too too long to the point where I actually lost interest, wanting to get back to the main throes of the story. I wasn't a huge fan of the biblical allusions/references either -- sometimes they felt a little strained as well as heavy handed.  But those are my particular niggles, and to each his/her own.  

I probably wouldn't have bought this book had it not appeared as part of the Booker dozen, but in the long run, and for many reasons, I'm glad I did. 

* Maine State Archivist Kate McBrien has an insightful and well-researched presentation on Malaga Island that is available on youtube. I recommend it wholeheartedly.  

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