cover image This Other Eden

This Other Eden

Paul Harding. Norton, $28 (224p) ISBN 978-1-324-03629-6

Pulitzer winner Harding (Tinkers) suffuses deep feeling into this understated yet wrenching story inspired by an isolated mixed-raced community’s forced resettlement in 1912 Maine. Formerly enslaved Benjamin Honey and his Irish-born wife Patience settled Apple Island more than a century earlier. Now, the hardscrabble community includes gender-bending and incestuous siblings Theophilus and Candace Lark and their four, mentally disabled children; a Civil War veteran named Zachary Hand to God Proverbs, who lives in a hollow tree; Irish sisters Iris and Violet McDermott, who raise three orphaned Penobscot children; and the Honeys’ descendents. Christian missionary and retired schoolteacher Matthew Diamond has spent the past five years visiting the island during the summer to teach the community’s children. A deeply prejudiced man, he prays for the strength to overcome his “visceral, involuntary repulsion” to Black people, and is continually shocked at the children’s quick minds as well as Ethan Honey’s talent for drawing. With eugenics on the rise, the state sets in motion a plan to clear the island and Diamond contrives to send Ethan to a colleague in Massachusetts, where he can pass as white and study art. Harding’s close-third narration gives shape and weight to the community members’ complicated feelings about their displacement, while his magisterial prose captures a sense of place (“the island a granite pebble in the frigid Atlantic shallows”). It’s a remarkable achievement. (Jan.)