Katy Simpson Smith takes on love, loss and the end of the Revolutionary War in her debut novel, “The Story of Land and Sea.”
Smith renders a beautifully woven epic tale of three generations of a family struggling to survive slavery, war and yellow fever in the late 1700s in Beaufort, N.C.
Asa, the owner of a small turpentine plantation, is a bitter man. He’s a widower who didn’t appreciate his wife during their marriage. “His wife had had been a neighbor, and he was more pleased when he stretched his log fence around her lands than when he first felt her warmth in their marriage bed.”
He’s grieving the loss of his daughter, Helen. She was his only child. He blames her husband, John, for taking her away from him. Helen died giving birth to her only child, Tabitha.
John, an ex-pirate, desperately tries to raise his spirited daughter, Tabitha. When she contracts yellow fever, he attempts to save her by whisking her away from Beaufort on a schooner headed for Bermuda. Asa is left alone again with no granddaughter to spoil and love.
Meanwhile, Moll, a sassy slave woman who was given to Helen as a gift for her 10th birthday, is trying to free herself from her owner by default, Asa.
At times, Moll and Helen, who are contemporaries, seem more like two sisters than slave and mistress. Moll even lets Helen play with her handmade doll. “She lets me play with it sometimes,” Helen tells her father.
Smith writes, “These are the relationships that should be managed by women; mothers are the ones who prevent slaves from slipping out of place. He fears that he has somehow allowed an unravelling.”
That’s evident in the dialogue between the two when Moll is forced to marry Moses, a slave from another plantation.
“Helen waits for Moll’s fury. She will ask why Helen did nothing to stop this marriage and is leaving her alone in a house with a stranger,” Smith writes.
Moll is even more afraid of being a mother to her son, Davy. She understands that as a slave woman, she has no right to her children. Her son can be ripped away from her at any moment. It’s hard to love someone who can be torn from you at the whim of a master.
Smith, who received her master’s and doctorate in history from UNC-Chapel Hill, says the germ of the story started with an unmarked grave in an 18th-century graveyard in Beaufort. The wooden marker read “little girl buried in rum keg.”
She uses the canvas of the novel to explore the circumstances of a girl found in a rum barrel. She asks in her lushly written prose whether this was an act of love or of desperation. After the death of Tabitha, each reader can decide for himself or herself.
The novel suffers as the narrative goes back and forth between generations. The tale begins with the second generation, then goes back to the first and then on to a blend of generations, with Moll added in. Very confusing.
Though the characters are interesting, they are not fully rendered in the 256 pages that encapsulate so many historical events.
Smith still manages to guide us through the rugged terrain of land and sea during this volatile time in U.S. history, when men and women were trying to find their way as they battled with their faith and humanity.
It’s a rich story that addresses how people weigh in on being in the midst of war and personal strife: Who are we really? Who are any of us to bestow freedom or take it away?