I can only be honest when I tell you I picked this book to review based on the cover. Because it's just pretty.
The Story of Land and Sea - Katy Simpson Smith
Set in a small coastal town in North Carolina during the waning years of the American Revolution, this incandescent debut novel follows three generations of family—fathers and daughters, mother and son, master and slave, characters who yearn for redemption amidst a heady brew of war, kidnapping, slavery, and love.
Drawn to the ocean, ten-year-old Tabitha wanders the marshes of her small coastal village and listens to her father’s stories about his pirate voyages and the mother she never knew. Since the loss of his wife Helen, John has remained land-bound for their daughter, but when Tab contracts yellow fever, he turns to the sea once more. Desperate to save his daughter, he takes her aboard a sloop bound for Bermuda, hoping the salt air will heal her.
Years before, Helen herself was raised by a widowed father. Asa, the devout owner of a small plantation, gives his daughter a young slave named Moll for her tenth birthday. Left largely on their own, Helen and Moll develop a close but uneasy companionship. Helen gradually takes over the running of the plantation as the girls grow up, but when she meets John, the pirate turned Continental soldier, she flouts convention and her father’s wishes by falling in love. Moll, meanwhile, is forced into marriage with a stranger. Her only solace is her son, Davy, whom she will protect with a passion that defies the bounds of slavery.
In this elegant, evocative, and haunting debut, Katy Simpson Smith captures the singular love between parent and child, the devastation of love lost, and the lonely paths we travel in the name of renewal.
When I first finished this book, which was an afternoon read, I sat in my chair wondering what the hell the point of this book was? I mean, I really sat there and thought I had just wasted and entire afternoon on a story that kind of felt like it had no point.
Fast forward a few days and I have a few different thoughts about it.
The story, for me, kind of revolves around John in my eyes and I realize that it's not really supposed to be, but for me, in hindsight all I think about is John and his connection to all of the other characters. But we start with John, who is caring for his daughter Tabitha alone because his wife Helen dies during childbirth. Tabitha contracts yellow fever and he decided bringing her to sea and breathing in sea air is the best course. Which, to have Tabitha's story at the beginning felt a little odd to me, but I suppose the author wants to give you that gut punch and then explain how John got here in the first place.
So then we meet a younger Helen who is given a slave for her tenth birthday, Moll, and those two become friends in a really bizarre sense that Helen seems oblivious to. Moll at least understands that they aren't really friends because she is a slave after all, and Helen doesn't understand what's wrong with that because it's just how life is for each of them. But Moll is forced to marry a fellow slave who happens to be a loser and Helen tries to make it a positive, happy occasion when really, Moll hates that it's happening at all. She has no say and again, Helen doesn't understand how terrible that is because she'll never be in that position.
But as they get older, their lives begin to change. Suitors are coming around for Helen and not wanting to marry at all, she flirts away but basically leaves them no hope that this is going to go anywhere. Until she meets John. She reluctantly likes him, doesn't want to love him, but somehow she ends up doing so. Her father doesn't approve of a privateer without a family but Helen doesn't much care. John is equally smitten and somehow, they find themselves running off and they end up married and she comes back pregnant after being to sea.
So that's a really terrible rundown of the story. In hindsight, I felt most sorry for John. He has no family, but finds Helen and they start a family. In the end, it's like he loses all of his family so him being basically the sea element in the story rings true. He's drift less and I feel like the sea is just... depression. It's sad, nothing truly changes and you just float along in life. Whereas Helen's father, Asa, is strong and though he has had awful losses in his life too and has lost all of his family as well, he feels different... sturdy. He feels sturdy like land and trees. This will make no sense to you at all, but that's just what I had been thinking of after I had finished the book for a few days. Really, I thought Helen was terrible. I didn't think she was a very nice person at all and I kind of feel like she really just used everyone. She used her father for monetary reasons, she uses Moll for companionship when it's convenient for her and almost as show, she uses suitors and doesn't think twice about their feelings, and when it becomes obvious she's done nothing in her life, she uses John as almost to prove a point that she did do something with her life and can make big life choices. So in the end, Helen seems like a terrible person.
But I will say that the end of Moll's story? You go, Moll. You go. It's probably not going to end well but dammit, you have to try.
This is just a short video of the author discussing how she came up with the story itself and a brief synopsis of it in her words:
You can purchase the book HERE, or add it to your Goodreads list HERE.