Finally! New England! After six states and six months, I have made my way to the east coast. And it feels good to be here.
The most familiar state I’ve read to this point is Alabama, which is similar to my home state of Georgia in enough ways that Alabama felt comfortable and known. But when I was off to Alaska and Arkansas, Arizona, California, and Colorado, these states in my home country were more foreign to me than I anticipated. Now, though, I’m in Connecticut, on the Atlantic coast that is my home coast, in a state where friends reside – friends who’ve told me stories of their Connecticut home towns, and a friend whose strange antique house I visited. In that towering Connecticut home the worn wood floors slanted, and the house had so many stairwells and cubby rooms that I got lost in the narrow corridors. I fell asleep wondering if I’d wake in our dark rickety room to a the bones of a tree limb scritching our window and a hollow-cheeked phantom hovering over my paralyzed body, its eye sockets empty and its mouth stretched into a skeletal grin. It was kind of fun. And reading Connecticut was fun, too, because I’ve been there. It feels good to read a familiar place.
Strangely, though, none of the Connecticut novels I read took place in haunted Colonial homes. I guess I’ll have to wait for Massachussettes for that. Instead I escaped to the meadow on the edge of a Puritan town in The Witch of Blackbird Pond, angsted alongside a twin as he grappled with his family history and his paranoid schizophrenic brother in I Know This Much Is True, and dropped my jaw at the story of an interracial love affair in a northern town, and how divergent its unfolding was in comparison to the same type of tale told in southern towns, in Ann Petry’s The Narrows.
Novel: The Narrows
Author: Ann Petry, born 1908 Old Saybrook, Connecticut
Setting: 1950s Monmouth, Connecticut
Categories: Literary Fiction, African-American Fiction
Set in the 1950s in the fictitious New England town of Monmouth, Connecticut, The Narrows is a glimpse into a part of town near the river, near the dock on Dumble Street, in a neighborhood that some call The Narrows, and some call Little Harlem. The characters are a widow and her Dartmouth-educated adopted son, the bar owner across the street, the fastidious butler to the rich white family in the mansion, the butler’s sensual wife, a photographer whose art is before his time, a frustrated newspaper editor, and, of course, the rich white family in the mansion. Petry is a master of describing characters:
The mouth was really lovely, the lips – well, you know there were lip muscles there, it was a singer’s mouth.
The Narrows is the story of the young Dartmouth-trained black man, Link, his love affair with a wealthy white woman, and the impact their tryst has on the black community in a small New England town. Their affair is mostly hidden in the dark of night and in the penthouse of the Waldorf Astoria in New York, and after reading many similar books set in the small-town South, what fascinated me about this book was the difference in the fear levels of the mostly black cast of characters: those who knew about the affair didn’t like the pairing, but there was not a sense of life or death like it would have been during the same decade in the Deep South. When trouble came to Link regarding the white woman, there was an ease in The Narrows: Link did no wrong, he would be fine. This attitude from residents of Little Harlem shocked me. In the South, in stories like this one, the black community would fear for Link’s life regardless of his innocence. Families would hide, crosses would burn, and Link would have been lynched before they even got him to the jailhouse.
Perhaps they should have been more afraid. For despite the outer civility of the New Englanders, and despite the courts and police serving Link fairly, the inner feelings between whites and blacks were the same in small town Connecticut as they would have been in the South. The difference in Connecticut was that the racism, and the danger, were stealthy and discreet.
The language in The Narrows is beautiful, the characters are rich, and it is a must read for readers interested in stories of race in America.
Novel: I Know This Much Is True
Author: Wally Lamb, born Norwich Connecticut
Setting: Three Rivers, Connecticut
Categories: Contemporary Fiction
I Know This Much Is True is a big book, both in your hand and in your mind. Clocking in at nearly 900 pages, it is a beautifully told story of the identical twin of a paranoid-schizophrenic and the “healthy” twin’s grappling with navigating his role with his broken brother, within his broken family, and in light of his broken history. I Know This Much Is True is Dominick’s – the healthy twin’s – journey through past and present in an attempt to help his brother and, ultimately, to heal himself.
I reached down and picked some rocks off the beach. Chucked them, one by one, into the rolling surf. I don’t know how long I stood there, pitching stones.
Rife with symbolism (water and rivers), patterns (amputations and mental illness), and parallels (twins and repeated history), I Know This Much Is True is a joy for literature-lovers who love to puzzle and think, and it is also quick-paced and does not require deep analysis to keep the reader both interested and entertained. Dealing with issues of siblings, friendship, the authenticity of parenthood, of navigating loss and dark family history, of seeking and offering help, and ultimately, dealing with the essential question of how to overcome your past to become a better human being, I Know This Much Is True is a hopeful, redemptive novel that both surprised and warmed me despite its dark undercurrents.
I will be thinking about this one a long time as I parse the patterns in Domenick’s life – how his modern life parallels his grandfather’s beginnings as an Italian immigrant in Connecticut, how river metaphors run throughout the book, how rabbits and eerily similar scenes repeat throughout generations – and I will delight in the lesson learned that sometimes we don’t recognize our own ugliness until we see it displayed in someone else, and we might not see someone’s goodness until we remove our angry blinders and forgive them their mistakes even as we ask forgiveness for our own.
Novel: The Witch of Blackbird Pond
Author: Elizabeth George Speare, born 1908, moved to Connecticut in 1936
Setting: 1687 Wethersfield, Connecticut
Categories: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, Newbery Medal Winner
I have a weakness for Puritan literature – stern Colonists and unpainted wood structures and girls with names like Prudence, Charity, Mercy, and Thankful – and The Witch of Blackbird Pond delivers on all of those. Set in Connecticut in the years before the Revolutionary War, The Witch of Blackbird Pond is the story of an orphaned young woman, Katherine (Kit) Tyler) who makes the sea voyage from her family’s tropical plantation to the gloom of her aunt and uncle’s home in Connecticut.
The bleak line of shore surrounding the gray harbor was a disheartening contrast to the shimmering green and white that fringed the turquoise bay of Barbados which was her home.
Raised on an island by a grandfather who taught her to read, Kit – who swims and laughs and speaks frankly and freely – is sharply scrutinized the moment she steps off the boat.
In this harsh, buttoned-up place, where she passes a whipping post and the stocks on her way to church, Kit only feels comfortable in the meadows on the outskirts of town and in the cozy cottage of an outcast Quaker woman: the “witch” of Blackbird Pond. Hannah Tupper, the Quaker, is warm, kind, gentle, and wise, and she is everything an orphaned island girl in a Puritan world needs.
She could hear the crackling of the flames, the bubbling of the stew in the kettle, the scratching of the pen in Prudence’s fingers, the creak creak of Hannah’s chair and the drowsy purring of the yellow cat.
Kit and Hannah visit secretly and happily for a long time without incident, and all is well for many months. Then the children of the town start getting sick. The superstitious townspeople cry witchcraft, and Kit and Hannah are the witches they hunt.
Speare engages all the senses with her vivid language, and the Connecticut setting she evokes in The Witch of Blackbird Pond is everything you want from a New England historical novel. I’ve read this book more than once in my life, when I’ve itched to observe the strange, stern Puritans, and I know I will read it again.
For Further Reading in Connecticut
Books I have read and can recommend:
Joe College by Tom Perrotta
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Sleeping Father by Matthew Sharpe
New England White by Stephen Carter
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.