Stories from odd places
BOOKS | Authors offer a dark history and a surprising critique
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In 1912, the governor of Maine evicted a mixed-race community from an island off the Maine coast and committed eight islanders to an institution for the feeble-minded.
From Pulitzer Prize–winning author Paul Harding comes This Other Eden (W.W. Norton & Co. 2023), a novel based on the story of Malaga Island. In Harding’s adaptation, a former slave and his Irish wife settled on Malaga (or “Apple Island” as it’s known in the story) in 1792. One hundred years later, their descendants and other islanders have intermarried incestuously. Tasked with organizing a school, missionary Matthew Diamond, a white man, wrestles with prejudices and convictions, leading him to make a decision he later regrets.
A former drummer, Harding writes in melodic prose with a thoughtful cadence that does not abide skimming. But warnings are in order: The book discusses dark themes like incest, rape, and murder, although in a nongraphic way. Two characters have children out of wedlock, and there are some expletives. But when it comes to sexual abuse, Harding portrays the darkness of sin without using graphic descriptions, and the book never waters down the consequences of sin.
Despite gruesome episodes, the author emphasizes the value of human life, even of those born of incest, not something many authors would dare to say this close to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling. And while skin color plays a key role in the narrative, Harding doesn’t seem to have a racial agenda. That’s pretty refreshing.
In The Thing in the Snow (William Morrow 2023), Sean Adams delivers an eccentric tale about three caretakers tasked with maintaining the Northern Institute, an abandoned research facility in a snowy wasteland. Every week, their boss Kay assigns peculiar tasks such as making sure the doors do not creak beyond “what one would expect,” or testing the blinds.
Hart, the narrator and a supervisor who takes his job a bit too seriously, approaches insanity when he feels threatened.
The whole operation is shrouded in mystery. Kay keeps the thermostat’s location a secret. No one knows why the researchers left, much less what they researched. Gilroy, a left-behind researcher and fussy recluse, pays more attention to studying coldness than to Hart’s questions. Headquarters advises against leaving the institute because of “snow sickness.” One day, Cline spots a thing in the snow, an object whose intrusive presence changes everything.
Despite being set in a freezing tundra smack in the middle of nowhere, Adams’ book is dryly funny and a surprising critique of placing identity in career.
However, as with This Other Eden, The Thing in the Snow is marred by mild swear words and misuses of the Lord’s name.