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Racism tears a Maine fishing community apart in 'This Other Eden'

This Other Eden, by Paul Harding
WW Norton

The brave new world of better living through planned breeding was ushered in in the summer of 1912, at the first International Eugenics Congress 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, Maj. 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" live 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 clam shells, 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 "Governor's 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, to meals of slow-roasted sunshine and poached storm clouds, so used to devouring sautéed shadows and broiled echoes; 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.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.