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The Heavyweights of Summer

As summer is coming to a close, I have been looking over the books I read, and there have been some really sobering tomes, both in nonfiction and fiction. The adult summer reading program this year recommended two books by Maine authors: Night of the Living Rez by Margan Talty and Lungfish by Meghan Gilliss, which cannot in any way be categorized as your typical summer beach reads. With fictional explorations of mental health, family dysfunction and substance abuse, these two books certainly matched the unusually long periods of dreary, wet weather we had this summer. The idea of matching books to weather reminded me of a conversation I had with a bookshop clerk last year. She insisted that summer was the time to read the more serious, "weighty" books so that the warm, sunny weather could balance out the dark, heavy themes. I am not sure that weather and literature works that way, preferring to mix up my genres and styles regardless of the season, but it did put me in mind of some other sobering summer reads. Interestingly, these two novels are also set in Maine. I will also feature two nonfiction selections for adults. I will put off the children's books for another blog.

Fiction: English has no word for a parent who has lost a child. * I first came across this wordless phenomenon in a Korean drama, in which the character explained that while there are words for children who have lost parents (orphans) and people who have lost spouses (widow and widower), the loss of a child is so unnatural and devastating that there is no word for this state of being. Beneficence by Meredith Hall recounts the experience of one family who loses their oldest son. Spanning from 1947-1965 and set on a farm in rural upstate Maine, the tragic accident fractures the family's sense of safety, connection to each other, and meaning in life. In the beginning, the Senter family seemed to live an idyllic life. "The farm is a bulwark, I taught my children. This world, and then the world outside. We are safe on this land, in this home." (59) The sense of guilt and sorrow causes the remaining family members to hurt each other in both conscious and unconscious ways. The remaining family members struggle to reconnect and reach out for happiness once again. "This kind of happiness requires courage. It requires a willingness to love. A willingness to forgive. a willingness to believe in some sort of goodness. It requires that we each accept what has been lost and offer ourselves to what we have now." (275) Told in such beautiful, simple language, from multiple perspectives, the story literally lay heavy on my chest and produced lumps in my throat.

Published just this year, Paul Harding's book, This Other Eden, which recounts the terrible history of Malaga Island, Maine, is historical fiction at its best. Located just off the coast of Phippsburg. Malaga Island was once the home of a poor, mixed race fishing community. In the late 1800s, Maine transitioned into the popular vacation destination it is today. This, coupled with the rise of the study of eugenics and theories of race superiority, led the State of Maine to remove forcibly all of the inhabitants of island in 1912, committing some of them in Pineland, then a "school" for the mentally handicapped. For the novel, Malaga Island is renamed Apple Island. Chapters and sections are told from different perspectives, islander and mainlander alike, and interspersed with actual documents from the time period. While written in stark, simple prose, the narration leaves all of the complexities in the characters and the situation, both beautiful and ugly at the same time. The book not only leads us to contemplate what took place on the island, but the situation of poverty-stricken and marginalized people around the world today. How do we view these "unfortunates", these "others"? Is humankind "a single family, of which every soul born since is a member, every saint and drunkard, every hermit, cutpurse, prostitute, factory owner, railroad baron. Every deadbeat mule driver is your father, your brother, every wayward milkmaid your aunt, your sister"? (64) What responsibility do we have to them? Can we condemn the schoolteacher who ministers to the islanders, but is repulsed by them as well?

Nonfiction: A couple of years ago, National Geographic, ran an article in their magazine, about the last slave ship, Clothilda, which smuggled a shipment of enslaved African into Alabama in 1859, right before the Civil War. This summer I came across the book, Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo", by Zora Neale Hurston. While acquainted with her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, I never knew she had studied and trained to be an anthropologist. Originally written in the early 1930s, Barracoon was never published until 2018 due to a disagreement Hurston had with the publisher over style and format. The book records Hurton's interviews with the last surviving "cargo" of the Clothilda, Kossula, renamed Cudjo Lewis. At the age of 19, Kossula was kidnapped by a rival African group, and sold to white slavers. To say his story was tragic is an extreme understatement. Not only did he experience six years of enslavement, but also the disappointment of not being able to return to Africa once freed. Throughout his life, Kossula continued to experience tragedy as he lost family member after family member due to continued racism, injustice and poverty. Recorded in his own words, you could feel his anger, justifiable anger, but was moved by his struggles, as a Christian, to overcome his bitterness. This short book, with a lot of editorial and historical commentary, is well worth the read. One shameful note is that the men who sponsored the Clothilda were originally from Maine.

As a little girl, I loved the story of Pocahontas. She was the brave "Indian" princess who saved the life of Captain John Smith, brought food to the starving colonists at Jamestown, and married the Englishman, John Rolfe. It was not until much later did I learn the darker details of her story and become acquainted with the complexities of colonialism not only in Virginia and the New World, but around the world. One figure was never part of the story was Opechancanough, Pocahontas' uncle or cousin. However, James Horn, in his recent book, A Brave and Cunning Prince: The Great Chief Opechancanough and the War for America, asserts this war chief of the Powhatans, played a crucial role in the events of the New World in the late 16th and early 17th centuries; he may have been instrumental in stopping Spanish domination north of Florida. As a young man, Opechancanough was kidnapped by the Spanish and brought to Spain. Although he was treated like a prince, Opechancanough maintained an intrenched, often hidden, hostility towards all Europeans, and once back in Virginia, fought tirelessly to destroy all European settlements within his tribe's lands. This book has stayed with my longer than most, and I have struggled with my overall assessment of Opechancanough, particularly in light of the very different decision Pocahontas made. The dilemma is not in the fight itself for to defend your homeland and way of life from outside invasion is justifiable, but in the very real question, "is all fair in war"?

Tea: It was hard to determine which tea should be paired with these heavy, summer reads. Usually in summer, I drink a lot of iced tea at home, and indulge in specialty drinks at coffee shops. However, their light, sweet tastes do not seem to be appropriate for these particular books. Instead, I offer you a tea I came across in a local shop: Margaret's Hope. Initially, I bought it for the name, thinking it was a flavored black tea from a Maine-based tea company. As it turns out, Margaret's Hope is the name of a tea estate in Darjeeling, India, and this tea is offered by several different tea companies. The story of this estate and its name is tragic and overshadowed by the moral dilemma of colonialism in India, making it an appropriate selection for these books. Margaret was the name of the daughter of the Englishman who took over the tea garden in the 1930s. She died of illness on a voyage back to India. Even so, it is a lovely tea to drink while reading books of all genres and styles.


Artwork credited to Aurora Draws - contact for more details

All photographs by the author

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