An unvarnished tale of seafaring, slavery and new beginnings set in post-Revolutionary North Carolina.
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. As the Revolution trickles to an end, the seaside town of Beaufort is in decline as its once-thriving harbor empties and its young men seek opportunity elsewhere. Aging widower Asa, who owns a turpentine plantation, maintains a prickly detente with his son-in-law, John, a former pirate who ran away to sea with Asa’s only daughter, Helen, who later died giving birth to a daughter, Tabitha. When Tabitha contracts yellow fever at age 10, John thinks, in desperation, that a sea voyage will restore her health. His hopes dashed, John returns to Beaufort to bury Tabitha alongside Helen. The scene shifts to earlier, happier times: Helen and John, a penniless sailor–turned-soldier, meet at a regimental tea and quietly fall in love. While John is off fighting the British, Helen expertly runs the turpentine enterprise while Asa pursues political ambitions. John and Helen reunite after she escapes captivity aboard a British ship. (All potential for swashbuckling romance is studiously ignored.) Meanwhile, Asa’s slaves play out their own scenarios of parenthood and loss. Moll, a companion to Helen since both were 10, is married against her will. Her firstborn son, Davy, is her only consolation. When Davy and John set out for the frontier, motherly love compels Moll to take a suicidal risk. Though Smith’s homespun prose conveys a sense of the period without undo artifice, this is more a diorama of archetypes than a fully-fleshed drama.
A bleak, unsentimental but ultimately static evocation of early American lives.