Near the end of the 19th century, Benjamin Honey, a formerly enslaved Black sailor, and his Irish wife, Patience, made their home on a tiny rocky island off the coast of Maine. More than a hundred years later, the hardscrabble community that survived on Apple Island was casually mixed-race, even as the mainland was not. The island becomes a target for politicians, budding eugenicists, and real estate investors who decide the residents must leave in “This Other Eden.”
Paul Harding, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Tinkers,” took inspiration for his new novel from the true story of Malaga Island in Maine, whose mixed-race occupants were evicted in 1912. In his new book, with gorgeous, often antique prose, Harding takes us into the prelapsarian world of the islanders: intimate with nature, free of the industrial revolution across the channel, burdened with their own strangeness and sins, their exile on the horizon.
Mostly we follow the story of grandmother Esther Honey, her quiet son Eha, and his children, in particular his artistically gifted son, Ethan. Esther is a storyteller, with an old Bible and Shakespeare’s plays at hand in their sturdy one-room cabin. She’s also the island’s memory, knowing every wrinkle of its meager bounties and challenging seasons. When winter is at its most unforgiving, her family begs her to retell the Noah-like myth of their ancestors surviving a hurricane.
The Honeys are not alone on the island. Their neighbors, the Larks, have lineage that includes some close relatives getting too close, and a fleet of ethereal children who are predominantly nonverbal. While a different kind of story might cast them as freaks, Harding writes them with such empathy that Rabbit Lark, who watches from the shadows while eating tiny creatures alive, seems more saint than strange.
There are two sisters who take in laundry from the mainland, care for an assortment of orphaned and abandoned children, and live in the top of a boat that’s been positioned on land. They’re related to an elderly carpenter, Zachary Hand to God Proverbs, who carves illustrations of the Bible inside a hollow tree. “He loved, in order, sculpting robes, vegetation, faces, and most of all, hands, through which he took special joy in expressing despair, support, betrayal, supplication, forgiveness, healing, benediction, blessing, revenge, comfort, and murder, hands raised high, hanging limp, clenched, slack, palms out, extended, turned in, retracted, bathing feet, supporting elbows, wiping tears, tightening nooses, drawing swords, jabbing vinegar sops, thrusting spears, caressing sleeping faces.”
With no running water, electricity, or conveniences of the modern world, one thing the islanders can do, if so inclined, is make art.
Ethan has found his calling at the summer school set up by a well-intentioned teacher. There is a star math student and a star Latin student, but we focus on Ethan, the star artist. He’s provided with charcoals and paper. He draws fragments, himself, his sisters crossing the channel with berries they’d picked on the mainland, almost getting caught in the tide.
The teacher arranges for Ethan to go away for a few months to a wealthy sponsor’s property (in Enon, the setting of Harding’s second novel), who will then send him off to art school. What Ethan doesn’t know is that his teacher is racist. He’s decided that, since Ethan is the one person in his family who appears white, he would be better off separated from his visibly Black sisters, father, and grandmother, who will be evicted before he can return. It is a cruel family separation, like so many others in North America’s past.
Poor Ethan is not told what’s happening; he’s not briefed about the racism he might encounter or much of anything about the industrialized world he’s about to enter. His innocence protects him, somewhat; there is a lovely passage of his barely-understood glimpses of modernity on his way to his host’s grand farm.
Harding has a gift for using language with intense precision that evokes his characters’ points of view, whether he’s portraying a tide pool on the island as seen by someone who’s never left it or the way Ethan, who’s never been in a multistory home, feels when he walks through his patron’s cluttered mansion. In that way, this book — all books, really — are about language, about how a writer builds a world for us readers.
That goes double, though, once Ethan reaches the farm. He and a maid there have an idyllic, sun-soaked affair, and he draws and paints the summer and her and the landscape. Harding’s descriptions are extraordinary.
This is Ethan painting: “Stack the clouds piled in rows across the meadow, simmering, hovering, combed fog stitched by the bottom to the short shorn grass, vegetal, green, drying in the day, dehydrating in the sun, sweet and wet then dry and sweet and perfuming the meadow” — there’s not enough room for it all — “How to get dawn, noon, and dusk all at once. How to get the heat. The forms and light and colors describe themselves to Ethan with perfect clarity and harmony, without explanation of reason, and he copies them down onto the canvas with the paints.” This is the project of the artist, Ethan, but it is also the project of Harding, the writer, who is putting this vision down on the page.
Of course, a fall is coming to this Eden, and the one on the island, too. From the first pages, we’ve known the islanders will be removed, scattered, institutionalized. Other subsistence hamlets along Maine’s coast were allowed to survive but Malaga Island was not. That is a tragic story, whose real shape is different from the one Harding has so richly imagined. The Apple Islanders and readers have the small consolation that despite all the cruelty they face, art survives.
THIS OTHER EDEN: A Novel
By Paul Harding
W.W. Norton, 224 pp., $28
Carolyn Kellogg, former books editor of the LA Times, now lives in the Hudson Valley.