Review | In ‘This Other Eden,’ an island refuge is destroyed by good intentions


“Terrible how terribly good intentions turn out almost every time,” thinks the matriarch of Apple Island, a tiny, mixed-race community 300 feet off the coast of Maine that has sheltered refugees from American society since the end of the 18th century. Esther Honey’s foreboding insight could be the motto of “This Other Eden,” Paul Harding’s beautiful, brooding new novel about a small collective that has, until now, managed to evade the attention of the mainlanders.

At the time of Esther’s musing, in the spring of 1911, those attentions seem benevolent. For four summers, a mainland relief society has been sending food and goods to the island’s impoverished inhabitants. With those supplies comes Matthew Diamond, a retired teacher sponsored by a Massachusetts theological seminary. Matthew wants to teach Apple Island’s children about the outside world they hardly know. He is delighted to discover that one girl “took to Latin as if she were not learning it but remembering it,” and another is so quick with geometry that he is hard put to stay ahead of her in lessons. Meanwhile, Esther’s oldest grandson, Ethan, “drew almost as well as any art school student.” Matthew is a kind, gentle man who genuinely wants to do good for people he sees as deprived.

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Nonetheless, Esther dislikes and distrusts him. For starters, “he was fully white and her monster of a father had been fully white.” Esther’s unfolding recollections of the damage her father did form an important strand of the novel’s narrative, and her hatred for him certainly influences her reaction to Matthew. But the primary reason for her feelings is the conviction, born from stories passed down through the generations, that “no good ever came of being noticed by mainlanders, which always meant being noticed by white people.” Esther is proved right by the wrenching events that close the novel; we know almost from the beginning that the islanders will ultimately be evicted from the only home they have ever known, in the name of science and morality.

Before that cataclysmic denouement, Harding paints a rich, unvarnished portrait of Apple Island and its residents. Hardly more than a dozen people — “distillate of Angolan fathers and Scottish grandpas, Irish mothers and Congolese grannies, Cape Verdean uncles and Penobscot aunts, cousins from Dingle, Glasgow, and Montserrat” — live close together and in pre-modern conditions. They often go hungry, and none of them have ever paid taxes or had a bank account, birth certificate or marriage license. One family is headed by a father and mother who are probably siblings; one man, Zachary Hand to God Proverbs, lives inside a tree, on which he carves scenes from the Bible. They are individual and odd, enfolded in a natural world Harding depicts with the same unsentimental reverence he employed in his Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, “Tinkers.”

Long, cascading sentences sometimes loop back on themselves to add salient details; others rush forward to encapsulate as much complexity as they can. A gorgeous description of “the precious indigo nights of August” balances a terrifying chronicle of the 1815 hurricane that nearly extinguished Apple Island’s population. Step-by-step accounts of gathering food for a banquet or building a house by hand illustrate the skills these residents need to lead what outsiders view as a primitive life. The full reality of the islanders’ existence, Harding demonstrates, is scanted by the doctors and politicians who invade the island to measure skulls, noses, ears and teeth, then conclude that these “queer squatters” are “degenerate and in need of assistance.”

Matthew’s well-meaning friend back in Massachusetts, who agrees to host Ethan for a summer before he goes to art school, proves to be just as encased in conventional morality. When he discovers Ethan’s love affair with his Irish servant Bridget, he expels the young man for “indecent” behavior. Likewise, it’s clear that the mainlanders’ disgust at race-mixing is at least as powerful a factor in their desire to eliminate the settlement as their pretended concern for public health.

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Based on the history of an actual Maine island, “This Other Eden” tells a tragic story. But Harding’s finely wrought prose shows us a community that refuses to see itself through the judgmental eyes of others, a society composed of people who give their neighbors the same latitude to go their own way that they claim for themselves. It closes on a note of determined hope, with an emblem of continuity and endurance held high above the waters that separate Apple Island from the censorious mainland.

Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”

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