Another in the occasional series and another book that I’ve already finished. The Story of Land and Sea for the most part lives up to the praise heaped on it. Katy Simpson Smith draws the reader in with an engrossing story of three generations of a family living in North Carolina as the Revolution winds down.
The characters evoke sympathy: the creative and imaginative little Tabitha; her father the former pirate John, who still mourns for her mother; Moll the slave; her son Davy; even Tabitha’s hidebound grandfather, Asa. Their intertwined lives offer a real sense of the ending of the Colonial era and the budding of the states.
For all that Ms. Simpson builds her plot and characters well, it is her language that captivates. Writing of Asa, who is trying to remember whether he was afraid during his very limited encounter with war against the Spanish in 1747: “This is what parents do: shape the emotions that will color memory.” A brilliant insight, elegantly written, as is his later observation: “Regret only exists once the opportunity for change is gone.” Not all the language belongs to the white masters. Young Davy comes to the “big house” in search of merchandise for John’s store. “The hearth room is shambled with boxes and jars and loose paper and dust. Davy picks up a few of the smaller boxes and stacks them in a corner on top of a wooden trunk. They leave behind empty mirrors of themselves in the dust, ghost outlines.” Ghost outlines rule my house. Now I may leave them alone so I can recall those beautiful words.
The ending of The Story of Land and Sea constitutes the only less than stellar experience. This problem has arisen in a number of contemporary works I’ve read lately. It leaves the feeling that the authors don’t know how to arrive at a conclusion that, even if it doesn’t wrap up every loose end, at least gives the sense that a resolution is possible, or that the characters are satisfied with the ambiguity. None of that is true here.