This is Tilghman’s third book featuring the Mason family; the first Mason in this country was given a land grant in Maryland when as a Catholic, he fled England in the 1650s. The books are Mason’s Retreat and The Right-Hand Shore. Thomas and Beal appear in the latter book; they were close as children then fell in love and had to leave not just the Retreat, but the continent because he was white and she was black. A nun who had known Thomas’s sister Mary met them at the boat in France and helped them get settled for the winter in Paris in 1893.
While Beal turned the heads of the young starving artists arriving in the great city of art, Thomas became a friend of a librarian who guided him toward books to learn about what would become his life work, growing grapes and making wine in the south of France. The uncertainties Thomas and Beal faced, as well as their youthfulness, made for drama and upheaval in their first season in France. Even after they began to settle into their lives as farmers/winemakers in the Midi, tremors occurred. The pleasure of this book is seeing how all the characters confronted the tremors. A strong secondary pleasure was the role of the land of the Midi, just as Mason’s Retreat (that large land grant) played a role in the first two books about the Mason family.
Thomas felt immediately at home at St. Adelelmus which included a large house and many outbuildings where others lived and worked to grow the grapes and make wine. The name of the region is Languedoc, referring to people who speak Occitan; the two towns Narbonne and Carcassonne are nearby. This is the land of Cathars, who have the distinction of being the only object of a crusade (1209 to 1229) by the church against other Christians.
I loved learning about the Canal du Midi, a 150-mile canal begun in 1667 that is part of the waterway system that links the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
Listening to his late father or his erstwhile professors at the University of Pennsylvania, Thomas might have believed that Americans invented civil engineering on the Erie Canal and the Union Pacific Railroad, but that seemed not to have been the case. While his Mason family forebears huddled in pestilent shacks in the tidal swamps of the Chesapeake, dying of the fever by the hundreds, the French were building this canal.
The intricacies and history of wine in this region and in the Bordeaux region are part of the story, but are referred to more than described in detail. There are little bits I’d like to remember. The Phylloxera, a louse that came to France from America infected the root stock and killed the vine reducing wine production in Europe by more than two-thirds. The cure was to graft the American root stock that had become resistant to the louse to European vines. The wineries in Languedoc had pretty well recovered by the time Thomas and Beal arrived. Thomas foresaw the glut of wine that eventually did occur; he planted varieties that produced a smaller quantity of grapes of higher quality. “Fake” wines, those that were watered down, created from fruit other than grapes, or had sugar added to them, along with an overabundance did cause great disruptions in 1907. Clemenceau repressed the Languedoc winegrowers revolt that year.
This has been a very satisfying book for me.
Christopher Tilghman, Thomas and Beal in the Midi, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019, 374 pages. Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.