The Book We're Talking About: 'The Story of Land and Sea' By Katy Simpson Smith

A stunning historical fiction debut.

The Story of Land and Sea
by Katy Simpson Smith
Harper, $26.99
Publishes August 26, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think:

Novelists frequently hear the invocation to “write what they know,” and it’s understandable; it’s difficult enough to capture the world they see around them convincingly, let alone capture a world they’ve only glimpsed, read about, or imagined. Herein lies the rub for the historical novelist -- the distant past resists being known, and that often shows in tales set in historical eras. Writers must walk the line between hewing closely to the crumbling primary sources and dry history texts they’ve consulted, producing a rather dense and uninviting product; or giving free rein to their imagination and potentially going too far, resulting in a wildly anachronistic or false-sounding recreation of an earlier time.

Few historical novelists, however, are better armed against these pitfalls than Katy Simpson Smith, who has a PhD in history, an MFA, and, now, a debut novel set in Revolutionary-era North Carolina. Never dry, dense, or false to the spirit of the history, Smith’s narrative flawlessly blends the beauty and idealism of American independence with the hypocrisy and devastation that lay beneath it.

The novel opens on John, a store owner in a small coastal town in North Carolina, and his daughter, Tabitha. After her mother, Helen, died in childbirth, John’s world has revolved around his headstrong, boyish daughter, who loves to roam the marshes near their home. When Tab falls ill with yellow fever, John can’t bear the thought of possibly losing the only loved one left in his life. He gambles that a trip at sea will restore her strength, just as sea air once made her mother strong.

From here, the narrative moves both forwards and backwards, traveling to sea with John and Tab and to Helen’s childhood with her widowed father, Asa, a plantation owner. Helen, an only child with an aptitude for business, takes an increasingly active part in the management of the plantation as she moves into her teenage years, straining her friendship with Moll, a young slave given to her by her father when Helen was 10. This complicated and necessarily one-sided friendship will reverberate tragically throughout Moll’s life, long after Helen’s fatal childbirth.

This troubled, exploitative, but superficially kind relationship runs under the surface of the novel, but offers the bulk of its emotional insight. Literature tends to struggle with the treatment of slave-owners, preferring its “bad” owners villainous and its “good-hearted” ones angelic, if misguided by their times. Helen and her father are neither, and Moll knows it. Moll doesn’t feel undue love or gratitude for their small mercies, but neither does she expect much more. Helen, as Moll finds, has the capacity to be a pleasant companion, a loving child, a tender wife, a hopeful mother, a thoughtful and God-fearing Christian, and to be the kind of person who uses her ownership of another woman to marry her off to a man she doesn’t love for business convenience. This is the world they live in, the behavior they hold as just and right, and Smith treats the brutality and hypocrisy of it with unusual honesty rather than whitewashing it with misleading black-and-white dichotomies or a perfect, idealistic heroine.

As the stories of Helen’s and Moll’s families intertwine, Moll will ultimately be pushed to defend what she loves most from those who selfishly believe they have nothing but her family’s best interests at heart. Smith’s evocation of the humanity of both slave-owner and slave never falters, leading readers to a troubling and heartrending conclusion.

What other reviewers think:
Publishers Weekly: "Smith’s soulful language of loss is almost biblical, and the descriptions of her characters’ sorrows are poetic and moving."

Kirkus: "In her debut novel, Smith takes liberties with linear narrative and employs ever shifting points of view but still doesn’t quite manage to imbue her stoic characters with inner lives."

Who wrote it?
Katy Simpson Smith has a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as an MFa from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She previously published We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835. The Story of Land and Sea is her debut novel.

Who will read it?
Readers who admire thoughtful, lyrical, religiously inflected literary fiction, and readers who have a taste for historical settings and themes.

Opening lines:
“On days in August when sea storms bite into the North Carolina coast, he drags a tick mattress into the hall and tells his daughter stories, true and false, about her mother. The wooden shutters clatter, and Tabitha folds blankets around them to build a softness for the storm. He always tells of their courting days, of her mother’s shyness. She looked like a straight tall pine from a distance; only when he got close could he see her trembling.”

Notable passage:
“In this last hour of consciousness, Tab floats on the ocean, no ship beneath her, surrounded by her mother and father and grandfather and any brothers and sisters who were caught unborn in her mother’s womb. She might have had four siblings by now, all of whom would follow her to the shore and curl up next to her at night to keep her warm in the winters. She is part of a family halted. She blames the sea for being romantic and God for killing. The room fills up with ghosts.”

Rating, out of ten:
8. In elegant, lyrical prose, Smith confronts the stark cruelty and hypocrisy of Revolutionary-era slaveholding, as well as the horror of grief and loss suffered by the powerless and powerful alike.

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