The Story of Land and Sea
It’s the end of the American Revolution, and the world as it had been known has undergone some serious changes, perhaps none more so than in the small coastal towns of North Carolina. THE STORY OF LAND AND SEA is the story of a family, three generations that survive the cataclysmic tumult of war, slavery and the usual human ideals of love and hate.
Ten-year-old Tabitha loves the water; her father was a pirate and tells her tall tales about his journeys. She traipses through the marshes and beaches of her hometown, thinking about the mother she never knew. Because of the death of his wife, Tabitha’s father, John, gave up his exciting life on the open sea. However, when his daughter contracts yellow fever, the ocean becomes his path to her recuperation. Father and daughter board a sloop bound for Bermuda, the redemptive properties of oceanside rest the utmost consideration.
"For a debut novel, Katy Simpson Smith has fashioned a page-turner of a generational story that would seem very much at home on an Oprah book list."
This is only one generation of the clan that suffers and rejoices among the upheaval of the young nation in THE STORY OF LAND AND SEA. The land portions include Helen’s childhood story as well, where she was raised by a widowed father, Asa, who owns a small plantation. When Helen is given a slave named Moll on her 10th birthday, the girls find themselves drawn into a close but difficult relationship. As they grow up, Helen takes over more and more of the responsibility on the property and eventually is given the right to run the plantation herself. She meets John, a runaway pirate who has since become a Continental soldier. Instead of focusing on her responsibilities, Helen finds herself drawn into a grand love affair with the young man’s derring-do and brazen lifestyle. She throws all caution to the wind and goes against her father’s wishes, marrying the former buccaneer and leaving Moll in the lurch. Moll ends up marrying a stranger and having a son with him, a son who will gain the benefits of all the love she has to give. When slavery forces their family apart, it is this strong and quiet love that saves them all from a much harsher fate in the end.
The relationships in THE STORY OF LAND AND SEA are quite vivid. The parent-child relationships, especially, drive the narrative with their intensity and importance. What a parent does and does not pass down to their offspring becomes a harbinger of the next generation of the family’s welfare. Love, of course --- romantic and platonic --- also guides these not-so-perfect beings through a broad, harsh landscape during the first generations of American independence. The specter of slavery and war hangs over each new generation, but the relationships forged within those unforgiving boundaries gives each family’s history a passionate trajectory that matches the difficulties caused by the young nation’s many upheavals.
The story of John, the pirate, and Helen, the brave, capable young woman who falls captive to his outrageous personality, is a very convincing and fun journey to follow. The pirate’s tales, which we learn about from his daughter as well, give a special glow to the otherwise dire proceedings of American history unfolding in the ages of revolution and slavery. It’s a lot of fun, if not a bit Harlequin-like, and gives the reader a nice respite in the course of an otherwise bombastic bout of disease and social pestilence that threatens to weigh the rest of the story down with its intensity.
THE STORY OF LAND AND SEA is a throwback to a more old-fashioned type of romance novel, where the romance is not only the bodice-ripping type but is also filled with the ribaldry that comes from the rougher lives of seamen, soldiers and pirates. For a debut novel, Katy Simpson Smith has fashioned a page-turner of a generational story that would seem very much at home on an Oprah book list. It will appeal to a wide audience, both literary and mass market, and take every reader on a wild ride that they will not soon forget.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on October 3, 2014