The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman


This was recommended by Corinne; I learned later the author teaches at UVa and the book was reviewed by the NYT. He has written books that explore life on an estate called Mason’s Retreat in eastern Maryland that is older than the country. The distant past is never far away and “the Emigrant” is mentioned more than once.

The key events of this story begin with the horror of the sale of all the enslaved people by one of the Masons shortly before the Civil War.  The repercussions of this act continue through the generations of black and white populations of the area. Ophelia, the daughter of that slave owner inherits the Retreat when her brothers die in the Civil War; she cannot bear to live there, but marries a man who is defeated by the place. He cannot save the tens of thousands of peach trees he plants from the yellow, a disease that kills peach trees despite his scientific efforts to save them. His daughter Mary gives her life to the Retreat in spite of her mother’s best efforts to keep her in Baltimore. The Masons’ Catholicism is another theme of the book; Mary’s life at the Retreat is one long act of penance.

Mary observes this about her parents:

She realized that the gulf between her mother and her father was more fundamental than merely faith and science; it was about the nature of knowledge, about epistemologie, as she had learned to call it. Her father believed that scientific inquiry could lay bare any uncertainty, that there was nothing that could not been seen sooner or later. Her father lived in the assurance that all would one day be revealed, and he was even confident enough to believe that this final day was not so far off, perhaps even in his lifetime.

Mary’s mother takes her to Paris so Mary can receive training as a novitiate for a year; Mary thought of moments of that year with great comfort for the rest of her life. When she was leaving at the end of the year, she learns this:

As Mother Barat used to say, we need saintes savantes, and we have plenty of saintes and not enough savantes. But you, Mary, are not really a saint. When faith and reason cannot be reconciled, a saint choose faith, and you choose reason.

Mary’s brother Thomas was left with his peach-obsessed father at the Retreat. He grew up roaming the property with Randall, who was black; they loved each other until they began to fight over Thomas’ friendship with Randall’s sister Beal. The characters abound:  Tabitha, who works in the mansion house and is not respected in the black community; Hattie’s Mary, who keeps her slave name to honor her mother; Mr. French, manager of the Retreat from the time of the peach trees through Mary’s death.

When Mary is near death in 1920, she interviews Edward Mason, one of two men eligible to inherit the Retreat. Over the course of the long day he is there, he spends most of his time with Mr. French and hears the story of the Retreat. His final interview with Mary clarifies the remaining questions and we learn a one-sentence synopsis of this man who does inherit the Retreat. I assume his story is fully told in a previous book (Mason’s Retreat) or one to come.

One other Catholic tidbit: there’s a reference to the Emigrant fleeing England in the mid 1650s with his most treasured possession, a letter to his father from Robert Catesby wrtten in the hours before Catesby’s execution. Having read Antonia Fraser’s book on the Gunpowder Plot, I know it was Catesby rather than Guy Fawkes who was the originator of that foolish and ill-fated terrorist plot against James I.

For a brief period the story is related by Abel, the most successful and respected member of the black community. Referring to a time in the past when he and his wife felt they had what they needed, he says

What I see now is how it was all built on sand. Get in a balloon a hundred feet into the air and look down, and you’d see the line of our houses with the swamp at the end and the scrub forests threatening to engulf us; get five hundred feet in the air and you’d see the Retreat on one side and Blaketon on the other and the paths through the woods, and you’d recognize that the only reason we existed at all was to provide our labor; get a thousand feet in the air and you’d see all of Mason’s Neck, and you’d begin to see how indifferent the land is to our hopes.

What a rich and complex book this is. It will clearly be in my top ten for 2013.

Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

Christopher Tilghman, The Right-Hand Shore, Farrar. Straus, and Giroux, 2012, 358 pages (I read the Kindle version).

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