This Other Eden
by Paul Harding
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Pub Date 24 Jan 2023 | Archive Date 31 Dec 2022
From the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Tinkers, a novel inspired by the true story of Malaga Island, an isolated island off the coast of Maine that became one of the first racially integrated towns in the Northeast.
In 1792, formerly enslaved Benjamin Honey and his Irish wife, Patience, discover an island where they can make a life together. Over a century later, the Honeys’ descendants and a diverse group of neighbors are desperately poor, isolated, and often hungry, but nevertheless protected from the hostility awaiting them on the mainland.
During the tumultuous summer of 1912, Matthew Diamond, a retired, idealistic but prejudiced schoolteacher-turned-missionary, disrupts the community’s fragile balance through his efforts to educate its children. His presence attracts the attention of authorities on the mainland who, under the influence of the eugenics-thinking popular among progressives of the day, decide to forcibly evacuate the island, institutionalize its residents, and develop the island as a vacation destination. Beginning with a hurricane flood reminiscent of the story of Noah’s Ark, the novel ends with yet another Ark.
In prose of breathtaking beauty and power, Paul Harding brings to life an unforgettable cast of characters: Iris and Violet McDermott, sisters raising three orphaned Penobscot children; Theophilus and Candace Larks and their brood of vagabond children; the prophetic Zachary Hand to God Proverbs, a Civil War veteran who lives in a hollow tree; and more. A spellbinding story of resistance and survival, This Other Eden is an enduring testament to the struggle to preserve human dignity in the face of intolerance and injustice.
About the Author: Paul Harding is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers, and Enon. He is director of the MFA in Creative Writing & Literature at Stony Brook University.
"Tender, magical, and haunting, Paul Harding’s This Other Eden is that rare novel that makes profound claims on our present age and very simply, a graceful performance of language and storytelling. Here is prose that touchingly holds its imagined vision of an island community at the turn of the twentieth century, with all its pseudoscience, racial assumptions, and intolerance, in a light that can only be described as generous and dazzling. I have not read a novel this achingly beautiful in a while, nor one in which the fate of its characters I will not soon forget." - Major Jackson, author of The Absurd Man
"There is no writer alive anything like Paul Harding, and This Other Eden proves it: astonishingly beautiful, humane, strange, interested in philosophy and the heart, stunningly written. It’s about home, love, heredity, cruelty, and the very nature of art, so completely original it’s hard to know how to describe it in a mere blurb, by which I mean: you must read this book." - Elizabeth McCracken, author of The Souvenir Museum
"In boldly lyrical prose, This Other Eden shows us a once-thriving racial utopia in its final days, at a time when race and science were colliding in chilling ways. In the stories of the Apple Islanders—especially that of Ethan Honey, spared a destructive fate because of his artistic gifts and his fair skin—we are made to confront the ambiguous nature of mercy, the limits of tolerance, and what it means to be truly saved. A luminous, thought-provoking novel." - Esi Edugyan, author of Washington Black
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Average rating from 23 members
The novel opens with the riveting story of a terrible storm washing over a small island off the coast of Maine, with a family clinging to the branches of a large tree and watching houses and people caught in the angry waters in the flood below. The Eden that Benjamin Honey had built was destroyed in 1815. His wife Esther tells the tale to her grandchildren, the history of their Ark island.
The Honey family had lived there for six generations, since an African ex-slave Civil War veteran and his Irish wife settled there. Their neighbors included the Larks with their colorless children, and the McDermott sisters who took in three orphaned Native American children, and the spinster Annie Parker, and Civil War veteran Zachary Hand who preferred his hollow tree to his cabin. The mixed races of the families had produced individuals of every type, the pale and the dark, green eyes and red hair, straight hair and tightly curled.
It’s a harsh life but they have survived. Theirs is a tolerant society where brother and sister raise their children, and a man can don his mother’s dress to keep house while his wife cuts her hair and goes fishing on the ocean.
The state sent a pastor to open a school. The community is Christian, the Bible and Shakespeare among the few, tattered books in the community. The teacher discovered a girl who is a mathematical prodigy, a boy who masters Latin, and another who is a gifted, untrained artist.
The Eugenics movement was at its height. The islanders were disturbing. They were measured and assessed, labeled and judged to be degenerate by the “plain white” of the mainland. The mixing of races, the intermixing of blood, could not produce anything but imbeciles, morons, and degenerates.
The entire population of Apple Island was relocated, many to institutions.
The early book takes us into these people’s lives and personalities. Yes, there are relationships that we may judge to be perverse. There are people whose sanity we may doubt. A girl who only eats wild things she finds, starfish and snakes. One woman was abused by her father, and intended to murder the resultant child. She was prevented, and her child and his children became the center of her old age. Zachary Hand carves images in his hollow tree where he finds peace. But we have sympathy for these people. They are removed from the world and a society that could not have accepted them, eking out a subsistence life, doing the best they could with what they had.
The teacher determines to ‘save’ one child of the island, a fifteen-year-old boy with straight hair and and greenish eyes. He writes an acquaintance, hoping he would take the boy in until he could enter art school. It seemed a mercy to separate Ethan Honey from his family’s fate, to allow him access to white society.
For all his good intentions, the teacher creates a series of disastrous events. Years in the future, historians will explore the buried history of the deserted island, and write about the paintings and drawings of the mysterious Ethan Honey.
Beautifully written, with stunning descriptive passages and a mounting urgency, this is a novel of history and a vision of what society could have become, a condemnation and a warning.
I received a free galley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.