Khamani Harrison owns a bookstore, The Key, that sells Afro-centric literature. If you search through its online listing, you will find This Other Eden, a best-seller that this black bookstore entrepreneur hasn’t opened and may never read. “I’ve heard enough about it already,” she says with a sigh.
Harrison is the descendant of a former resident of Malaga Island, one of thousands of densely forested rocks off the coast of Maine. A racially mixed community had inhabited the island for many decades, building a settlement of wood cabins, fishing in the salt water, and living in relative peace. But in 1912, the state of Maine evicted the 50 or so residents, including Harrison’s great great grandmother, because it believed they were “degenerates,” as mainlanders routinely called them. They came to be viewed as a threat to the state’s fledgling tourism sector.
Some residents loaded their belongings on boats, searching desperately for a new home in a mostly unwelcome, overwhelmingly white environment. Others were deemed mentally stunted and carted off to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded. The state not only torched the island’s remaining buildings; it exhumed the bodies of community members who had lived and died on Malaga, transporting the remains to the same mental institution, and reburying them there.
The island became, and remained, void of humanity — mostly.
In the 1980s, historians began telling the tragic story of the mixed-race folks (mostly African and Scottish-Irish in lineage) who settled on Malaga, about the missionaries who built a schoolhouse for the island’s kids, about the mainlanders who spread vicious rumors and lies about “Malagites,” and about Maine officials who ultimately decided to claim and vacate the island.
Eventually, the state recognized its wrongdoing. It issued a public apology, offered college scholarships to descendants like Harrison, and sold the island to Maine Coast Heritage Trust, a non-profit that established a nature trail with kiosks to educate visitors.
End of story? Not even close.
In recent years, the island has inspired numerous artists. Maine’s Poet Laureate, Julie Bouwmsa, wrote a book of verse dedicated to those displaced Malaga residents; Theaster Gates used film, theater, dance, and sculpture for a Paris exhibition that evoked their plight; Myron Beasley, a Bates College professor, staged a performative meal on Malaga; painter Daniel Minter blended his own drawings with artifacts and historical photographs to retell the story; and a rock band, State Radio, recorded a ballad about the likely founder of the community.
Now comes Paul Harding, whose latest novel, This Other Eden, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He is a gifted writer who won a Pulitzer for his first book of fiction (Tinkers). He paints a captivating still life of Malaga (or Apple) Island in this, his third book.
Eden is set in the early 20th century, and comes to a long foreshadowed climax when the state moves to evict the island’s longstanding, racially mixed residents. This is unsurprising in large part because Harding presents these characters as misfits, at least compared to what we might think of as “white society.” They are so weird or troubled that we find it hard to look away.
There is, for example, Zachary Hand to God Proverbs, who spends most of his time inside a hollow oak tree, carving images from the Bible into its trunk. There are the Lark children, nocturnal creatures who forage for bugs, bark, and starfish arms while others are sleeping. Some of these kids are mute and blind, or nearly so; they are unable to care for themselves. The children are products of romance between siblings, including a man who wears an old gingham dress inherited from his mother.
(Spoiler alert.) Incest also plays an outsized role in the life of the book’s central character: Esther Honey, a descendant of the island’s founder. We learn she was raped by her father, and nearly kills the brother-child born from that forced union. Instead, deep into the novel, she murders her father.
Harding’s tale has not been well-received by historians of Malaga Island. “I was cursing under my breath as I read the book,” recalls Kate McBrien, archivist for the state of Maine. “Incest, murder, depravity – this is all mythology. The island’s story is dramatic enough without inventing such stuff.”
And there is, she notes, a bigger problem: Harding’s depiction of islanders echoes the rumors and lies told by the white mainlanders who wanted those “Malagites” removed. “They come across [in the novel] as mentally challenged, generally unfit, unable to take care of themselves.” This reinforces the scientific racism (eugenics) of the early 20th century, which was mobilized to justify the eviction of islanders and the placement of several residents in a home for “the feeble-minded.”
McBrien has studied the island’s history for more than two decades. Yes, the archivist notes, the residents were poor. But – except for their skin color – they were not so different from the white residents who lived around Phippsburg or other parts of the southern coast. Yellowing photographs of the islanders seem to confirm this claim.
They wore clothing that was common at the time, lived in small but carefully constructed cabins, and appear reasonably well fed. McBrien accuses Harding of “implicit bias,” or perhaps worse: “In many places, it seemed like he was trying to make a point” about the depravity of “Malagites.”
Historians, as well as some reviewers, generally tend to be wary of historical fiction, an increasingly popular genre. Unsurprisingly, though, they make exceptions for novels and films that don’t stray too far from known facts. For example, a critic and friend who devours both history books and novels, is a big fan of Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a fictional account of the life of Thomas Cromwell. A “deeply researched” novel that won the Booker Prize in 2009, it “may be the best book I’ve ever read,” she tells me.
Fiction, notes another friend, a historian, often shapes our thinking about the past. Consider Gone With the Wind. Millions of readers and viewers came to see Reconstruction through its biased lens. The book by Margaret Mitchell and the film by Victor Fleming painted white southerners in post-Civil War America as genteel and noble, while presenting blacks as lazy and incompetent.
“It’s tricky,” says this friend. “Authors bear some responsibility for the ways in which readers respond to their work.”
Author Harding is unmoved by such criticism. He says he read three or four articles about Malaga Island, and became haunted by photographs of residents, as well as mental images from the Bible, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Melville’s Moby Dick. He told the Booker Prize Foundation: “I have no personal connection with that community or the actual families that went through that catastrophe. Their story — factual, historical – is not mine to write.”
Instead, Harding says he tried to write something more universal, his own imagined story inspired by history but not dictated by it.
This is the common refrain sung by those in the business of historical fiction. For example, Ava Duvernay, the director of Selma, pushed back against critics who said her film inaccurately portrayed former president Lyndon Johnson as a racist who dragged his heels on the 1965 voting rights act: “I’m not a historian; I’m a story-teller.” She said she was motivated to tell a story about the collective and mostly black effort to win voting rights, not to make a “white savior movie.”
I am sympathetic to Duvernay, who “punched up” by describing an extraordinarily powerful politician as a flawed human. This is quite different from Harding, who “punched down” by describing a marginalized community as depraved.
For a while, I was appalled that so many reviewers of This Other Eden failed to question Harding’s fantastic and fictional historiography. But then I realized I might not be any different. While reading the novel, I was engrossed, transported to a time and place that was simultaneously beautiful and horrible. But it also was plausible – at least to me, a white man.
In a message to Khamani Harrison, the descendent and bookseller, I mentioned that I thoroughly enjoyed the novel – until I did some research and discovered that it endorsed the racist vision of white mainlanders in early 20th century Maine. In our phone conversation, she confided that my comment confused her. “Why would you enjoy a novel that talks about mixed-race people having incest, eating bugs or whatever?”
She had me there.
The other day, still pondering Khamani’s question, I went to find her great great grandmother. Evicted from Malaga, Laura Tripp and her family floated down the coast in a makeshift houseboat. They stopped in different towns, hoping to resettle, but were repeatedly turned away. Eventually Tripp became desperately ill and her husband went ashore to get help. He returned hours later to find his children clinging to their mother’s lifeless body.
I found a marker for Laura Tripp in the back of Pineland Cemetery, bordering a lush forest and what used to be the Maine Home for the Feeble Minded in New Gloucester. It was surrounded by grave markers for other islanders, as well as a stone monument installed by the state in 2017. The cemetery was almost completely silent, quieter than Harding’s novel, far quieter than my mind.