Early 20th-century history informs a fictional family tale about racial prejudice and identity.
In this novel, Georgia O’Brien believes that her ancestors are white and Irish until her mother suffers a medical crisis. Her mother’s cancer diagnosis leads doctors to investigate the family’s genetic background in search of a cell donor. Georgia’s family is shocked to learn that an African American donor would be the best match. Unfortunately, Georgia’s mother does not recover after the treatment. Following her death, the hospital connects Georgia with the donor, a distant cousin named Lawrence McKenny. He explains that their family was descended from siblings born on Malaga Island, Maine. After the Civil War, the island was populated by a mix of white, African American, and East Indian denizens whose intermarriage resulted in a spectrum of complexions. The islanders lived in poverty as “a heathen mix of races” deemed undesirable by authorities and a burden on society. When the islanders were threatened with eviction in 1912, they fled. Those who could pass as white usually did. Intermittent flashbacks peppered throughout the narrative tell the story of the Malagaites in the decade before leaving the island, largely through the eyes of wealthy patrons who bring education to the island. Unfortunately, ingrained views about race and eugenics prevail (“Something had to be done to correct the blight that this degenerate community of half-breeds was casting”), ending with the community disbanding. The revelation of this surprising background blesses Georgia with a new family through her cousins. Ultimately, a greater understanding of the harrowing past causes her to redefine the present. In this illuminating and lucid novel, Merrill (Magic, Mystery & Murder, 2019, etc.) deftly fictionalizes a shameful episode in American history that recently received limited exposure through research projects and public radio broadcasts. Her impressive dedication to thoroughly researching the subject is demonstrated by her inclusion of 50 pages of reproduced original source articles that are intriguing ancillary material. The author’s powerful generational story skillfully questions whether people in modern times have become more enlightened in their views on race and identity. This is a valuable look at an American tragedy. Few books on the Malaga Island calamity exist. Hemingway’s The Malaga Chronicles tells a tale that’s more metaphysical than historical.
An eloquent historical novel that explores race and heritage.