SAM BRIGER, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Paul Harding's debut novel, "Tinkers," was a surprise winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Like "Tinkers," Harding's latest novel, called "This Other Eden," tells a sweeping story of impoverished New Englanders. But in this case, the story of their struggle against the crushing prejudice of their time is inspired by a horrific historical event. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: The brave new world of better living through planned breeding was ushered in in the summer of 1912 at the first International Congress on Eugenics, held in London. Although Charles Darwin hadn't intended his theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest to be practically applied to human beings, the generation that followed him had no such qualms. In fact, the main speaker at the congress was Darwin's son, Major Leonard Darwin. We often think of Nazi Germany when the term eugenics comes up, but, of course, the U.S. has its own legacy of racial categorizations, immigration restrictions and forced sterilizations of human beings deemed to be unfit.
Paul Harding's stunning new novel, "This Other Eden," is inspired by the real-life consequences of eugenics on Malaga Island, Maine, which, from roughly the Civil War era to 1912, was home to an interracial fishing community. After government officials inspected the island in 1911, Malaga's 47 residents, including children, were forcibly removed, some of them rehoused in institutions for the feeble-minded. In 2010, the state of Maine offered an official public apology for the incident. You could imagine lots of ways a historical novel about this horror might be written, but none of them would give you a sense of the strange spell of "This Other Eden," its dynamism, bravado and melancholy.
Harding's style has been called Faulknerian, and maybe that's apt given his penchant for sometimes paragraph-long sentences that collapse past and present. But in contrast to Faulkner's writing, the lost cause Harding memorializes is of an accidental Eden, where so-called white Negroes and colored white people lived together unremarkably, none of them giving a thought to what people beyond the island saw as their polluted blood.
Harding begins traditionally enough with the origins of Malaga, here called Apple Island, where, again brushing close to history, he describes the arrival of a formerly enslaved man called Benjamin Honey and his Irish-born wife Patience. Together, they build a cabin on a bed of crushed clamshells, have children, plant an orchard and make room for other castaways. The present time of the novel begins in that fateful year of 1911, when a governors' council of bureaucrats and doctors comes ashore to measure the islanders' skulls with metal calipers and thumb their gums. By the next year, the islanders are evicted, their homes burned down. The resort industry is becoming popular in Maine, and the islanders' settlement is regarded as a costly blight on the landscape.
Harding personalizes this tragedy by focusing on a character who has a chance of achieving what many would consider a better life. Ethan Honey is fair enough to pass for white, and his artistic talents earn him the support of a wealthy sponsor. In affecting detail, Harding describes how Ethan is lovingly deloused by his grandmother on the eve of his departure and how the hardscrabble islanders put together a celebratory feast of lobsters, mushrooms and berries. Harding says, the islanders were so used to diets of wind and fog, two meals of slow-roasted sunshine and poached storm clouds, so used to devouring sauteed shadows and broiled echos, they found themselves stupefied by such an abundance of food and drink.
Ethan's fate is left uncertain, but a century later, his surviving paintings will form the bulk of a fictional exhibit in Maine commemorating the centenary of the islanders' eviction. Harding makes his readers feel how the measured academic prose of the exhibit's catalogue leaves so much out. The exhaustion of the islanders' daily lives of labor, the nuance of human relationships, the arrogant certitudes of racism - all those elements and more are what Harding condenses into this intense wonder of a historical novel.
BRIGER: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of English literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "This Other Eden" by Paul Harding. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Women Talking" by actor-turned-director Sarah Polley. This is FRESH AIR.
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