This Other Eden by Paul Harding
Based in fact, this novel tells the tragic story of a group of mixed-race islanders evicted from their rightful homes in the name of preservation of racial purity. Compelling and appalling in equal measure, the tale is nonetheless captivating and richly told.
Compelling is the word for this one. The story, of a mixed group of former slaves, Scottish and Irish immigrants living on a tiny island just a few yards off the Maine coast will be difficult to put down. The writer’s style is not easy to describe, but it engages the reader’s imagination into the minds of these disrespected and self-reliant individuals using what is at times very nearly stream-of-consciousness prose. There is an urgency to the narrative the propels the story, based in fact, of this tale of racial and ethnic discrimination and eventual dissolution of a people whose life was, if not ideal, at least peaceful and of their own choice.
Living on a nearly barren island in a climate that is not only harsh but deadly has not been easy for the residents of Apple Island, some sprung from slavery, some escaped from troubles across the ocean. The mix of skin colors is, to them, invisible. They scrape an existence out of the few things they can harvest from the sea, the sparse soil and a fragile trade with the mainland, only one hundred yards away. Their homes are cobbled from driftwood, scavenged materials, stones wrested by force from the ground and their own blood and sweat. Winter is an enemy but one they know and can resist, and with difficulty survive. Help comes from one man, to his own shame a bigot but one who can feel empathy. A white Christian from the mainland, he endeavors to teach basic educational tools to the children of the island and discovers to his surprise and delight that in spite of their humble origins some are quite brilliant.
The serpent head of eugenics intrudes into the picture when a group of “concerned” citizens decide that these mixed-race islanders must not be allowed to procreate further and so must be evicted and sent to asylums, havens for the “feebleminded” and other “appropriate” locations to prevent more “degradation” of the communal gene pool. It is a shameful example of misguided and prejudiced community activism in the name of progress. The process is painful and rends the heart from the helpless islanders who must comply no matter what. The eviction proceedings turn violent and fueled by misunderstanding and failed communication end tragically.
A powerfully written and strangely captivating narrative drives this dark tale which in spite of its murky themes maintains a level of interest the reader will find intriguing. The road to hell is truly paved with good intentions.