The success of Paul Harding’s first novel, Tinkers (2009), is the kind of good luck story worth passing on to any dispirited author. When Cold Water Flat, the band he drummed with in the 1990s, broke up after touring the US and Europe, he studied creative writing at the University of Iowa, under the tutelage of (among others) Marilynne Robinson. The novel he spent the next decade working on got nowhere until a friend mentioned it to the editorial director of a small press called Bellevue. Unlike the major publishing houses that had rejected it, Bellevue was undeterred by the book’s seeming plotlessness (Harding himself has called it an ‘unlineated lyric narrative poem’). Publication was low-key but then a bookseller recommended the novel to the chair of the Pulitzer’s fiction panel; it won the award in 2010.
Tinkers is an odd blend of Emersonian transcendentalism and dogged worldliness. The people who tinker in it are Howard, a peddler and tinsmith, and his son George, a horologist. The practicalities of creating, mending and selling fascinate Harding throughout his three novels, whether it’s clock-making, plumbing, sculpture, jewellery, painting, laundering, delousing, lawn-tending, blade-sharpening or woodwork. Tinkering is both a livelihood and something done on the side. Between his rounds selling soap and fixing pots, Howard shoots a rabid dog, delivers a baby, puts out a fire, cuts a man’s hair and fishes a drowned child from a creek. In This Other Eden, Harding’s latest novel, a long passage recalls how two men felled a pine tree, sawed it up, split it into planks, dragged it through a forest and built a house from it – an achievement now under threat since the house, like everything else on Apple Island, is about to be destroyed.
Unlike most fictional islands, Apple Island isn’t exotically remote. It’s so close to the mainland that there’s talk of a bridge or boardwalk being built; at low tide, islanders wade across to pick berries and mushrooms. But the Apple community (twenty-odd men, women and children) know little about their near neighbours and nothing about the early 20th-century world. They’ve never paid taxes or taken out bank loans or had birth certificates. Presented with images of a telephone, a steam engine and President Taft, they can identify none of them. For their part the mainlanders, or the council representatives of the state of Maine sent to inspect Apple Island, see a ghetto of poverty, squalor, incest, imbecility and racial impurity. As the local rag, the Foxden Journal, puts it, ‘the typical Apple Island family traditionally has a turncoat white for a father, a scrawny frau black as coal for a mother, or vice versa, and a litter of tan children their issue’ – which isn’t to mention a cross-dresser and a homicidal rape victim whose son is her brother. The inspectors’ first step, after turning up with callipers, cameras, tape measures, wooden tongue depressors and (just to be safe) a pistol, is to make the islanders wards of the state. The next is to order their expulsion and relocation, with the worst cases to be placed in a school for the feeble-minded.
This Other Eden is loosely based on what happened on Malaga Island, Maine in 1912, the same year that the first international congress on eugenics was held in London, at which Leonard Darwin, son of Charles, put forward ideas for ‘improving the breed of the race’ by eliminating inferior strains. ‘The criminal, the insane, the imbecile, the feeble in mind, the diseased at birth, the deformed, the deaf [and] the blind’ were, he later wrote, hereditary traits that should be removed from the human population. The Malaga Island expulsion, coinciding as it did with the eugenics conference, makes for a chastening story. In 2010 the state of Maine issued a statement of ‘profound regret’ for its actions a century before. But Harding has no personal connection with the island and wants the freedom to veer away from historical fact. In his version of events, Malaga’s first inhabitant, Benjamin Darling, becomes Benjamin Honey. The Honey heirs are his focus, along with the Larks (one of whose children is called Rabbit) and the Proverbs. The names have an Edenic innocence and, despite the harsh conditions on Apple Island, that’s the way the novel is weighted, with the islanders as Adams and Eves and the state of Maine as the serpent or God.
Biblical metaphors are rampant from the off. Wise old Esther Honey, marooned in her rocking chair, tells of the flood that overwhelmed the island a hundred years earlier. Noah’s Ark, Moses’s basket in the bulrushes, the parting of the Red Sea – all recur insistently, though Esther is more troubled by the image of ‘the Hebrews leaving Egypt, Pharaoh’s army at their heels’, which she thinks will be the islanders’ fate (‘Pharaoh will come after us, like he always does’). Before Paradise is lost, a sinuous rhythm evokes Apple Island’s pastoral beauty:
Then came the precious, indigo nights of August, a breathy calm ocean almost slumbering, dreaming of its own depths. The last light slaked west. The world sailed into the high caverns of night … The blossoms released their fading scents, as if in harmony with the last light inside the clouds and sky beneath which the island lingered in an eventide of peace, and off drifted the Larks, enflowered, ordained to the night.
Harding doesn’t stint on rapture. He’s at his most diffuse when meditatively adrift among birds, beasts and flowers. In the hefty cast list of the first 25 pages, he includes three dogs.
Further into the book there’s another Eden, but it lies at a distance, in the village of Enon, Massachusetts, and only one of the islanders, the teenage Ethan Honey, is privileged to go there. A regular visitor to Apple Island, the teacher-cum-preacher Matthew Diamond is struck by Ethan’s talent for painting, as he is by Tabitha Honey’s for Latin and Emily Sockalexis’s for maths (so much for Indigenous un-intelligence). Ethan, alone among the islanders, looks white and Matthew uses this as a selling point when urging a wealthy friend in Enon, Thomas Hale, to give him refuge so he can develop his art: ‘To look at him, you would not be able to tell he has mixed blood.’
Matthew sometimes wishes that appearing white-skinned was not a man’s salvation. One Sunday he delivers a sermon in which he lauds mixed pigmentation: ‘The sons of Noah ranged in skin colour from black Ham to coppery Japheth to fair Shem,’ he tells the islanders. ‘Yet they were brothers, all their father’s and their mother’s sons.’ There’s a caveat, though, which Matthew confesses to himself: ‘I nevertheless feel a visceral, involuntary repulsion whenever I am in the presence of a living Negro.’ (There are a lot of italics in the novel, either bearing historical data or underlining bad-guy prejudices that Harding fears might be missed.) Matthew says he doesn’t feel this disgust towards children, ‘only the adults’. Then again, ‘he is sickened by his incurable aversion to these people he truly believes he has been ordained to help.’
Help means saving them from expulsion, and Matthew tries. But he is told his efforts ‘ain’t worth balls on a ewe’, and the prophetic Esther Honey knows he will fail. She distrusts him because he’s ‘fully white and her monster of a father had been fully white’ (her father was also the father of her only child and the manner of his death, in a cliff fall, is her guilty secret). The more Matthew tries to help ‘the more outside attention he’ll bring’ – and ‘no good ever came of being noticed by mainlanders.’ Esther knows where good intentions lead. And she fears that Ethan’s departure, though celebrated communally with a lavish feast, will end in disaster.
When he arrives as ‘a kind of refugee’ in Enon, at Thomas Hale’s grand house, Ethan is silent and befuddled: en route, he has seen bewildering sights – an automobile, women in bright dresses, mills and smokestacks. But Dutch farm workers have come to mow the hay in Mr Hale’s thirty acres of meadow. And as they scythe and rake, in tune with the land much as the Brangwens are at the opening of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, Ethan settles in and begins to paint. The settling-in is made easier by Bridget, Mr Hale’s servant girl, a refugee from Great Blasket Island (which had its own evacuation of residents in 1953), who recognises him as a kindred spirit – a culchie, a bumpkin, a poor islander like her. They even know the same tune, an Irish lullaby, and sing it together. She’s entranced watching him paint. He’s entranced by the iced lemonade she brings him (‘the sour and sweet and cold exploded citrusy and pale on his tongue’). They spend nights together in the barn where Ethan is being housed, with predictable consequences.
Harding wrote most of the novel on Post-it notes, he says, until the disparate parts came together, and this improvisational approach enriches the Enon interlude, where he’s free of the nagging Malaga parallel. The fractured, sometimes phantasmagoric narrative of Tinkers stemmed from Howard’s epileptic seizures and George’s deathbed hallucinations. This Other Eden is more plot-driven but Ethan’s process as an artist allows for a freer, daydreaming prose. Enon is also a homecoming, since Harding’s second novel is titled Enon and Tinkers is briefly set there. The former has a near contemporary setting yet prefers to look back (when he had to include a mobile phone, Harding says, he ‘practically had a stroke’). Its central figure, Charlie, distraught and drug-addicted after the death of his teenage daughter in a car accident, is obsessed with Enon’s long history and its ghosts. Charlie is the grandson of George and great-grandson of Howard. This Other Eden is free of these family ties but the Hale house appears in all its grandeur, as it does (no less grandly) in Enon, when Charlie is dissuaded from a robbery by the ‘impossibly decent’ Mrs Hale.
Thomas Hale, her ancestor, looks decent enough at first: he spends his days rootling through books, notably Ovid’s Metamorphoses. But when he spots Bridget trotting back like a doe from the ‘mulatto’s bed’, he acts as any white gentleman of his era would, summoning Ethan (whom he hasn’t met until now) and curtly dismissing him. The novel then returns to Apple Island, where a mass expulsion is underway. The brute facts of what happened on Malaga Island speak for themselves, but Harding has scenes to compose and he ups the ante. First there’s the young man from the town hall who delivers eviction notices and is so disgusted by the islanders – ‘filthy, ragged animals’ with ‘grey old filthy clothes’ and ‘cruddy dogs’ – that he breaks down in tears when he gets home. Then come the beating of Candace Lark and the killing of little Rabbit with ‘an old, heavy, dense, dark wooden police club’. And in between there’s the man whose name is a mouthful, Zachary Hand to God Proverbs, with a rant on behalf of differentness:
That’s right; I am queer, from queer folk, queer stock. The very queerest … I’m no cap doffer, no knee bender, no flattering stooge … No, not me; I’m queer. I’m queer for myself, for my selfhood, queer for this queer self I find myself to be, queer with strange appetites, and a heart that throbs most queerly. I’m queer for other queers, queer for their shapes and colours and sizes, queer for their tastes …
And so forth. It’s a given that you’ll be on Zachary’s side and share his rage against the mainland racists. But Harding won’t let you get there on your own. You’re hectored into sentiments you feel already. Where Tinkers is interrogative, This Other Eden is declarative. Rather than ask questions, it wields a wooden club.
At least the Honeys leave the island on their own terms, in a wooden raft (‘our ark, our little basket in the bulrushes’) that also accommodates the pregnant Bridget, who has come vainly looking for Ethan. And Harding’s pacing of the novel, in short sections – his drummer’s timekeeping – is skilfully done. There’s also redemption of a kind, in the legacy of Ethan’s work as the ‘mulatto Rembrandt’. True to the strain of family decency, Phoebe Hale, grand-daughter of Thomas, has preserved the charcoal drawings and oil paintings that Ethan completed on Apple Island and in Enon. They’re beautifully catalogued, as if for a centenary exhibition, in bright curatorial prose: a still life of ice and lemon in a glass; a portrait of an Irish servant girl, believed to be Bridget; a drawing of Theophilus Lark, his full head of hair a stark contrast to the photo of him, bareheaded, after his admission to the State School for the Feeble-Minded. Ethan has gone, last heard of in France, around the battlefields of Ardennes, in 1914. But the novel keeps him there, through the love that has survived of him in art.
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