There’s James Joyce’s Dublin, Emily Bronte’s Yorkshire moors, and Christopher Tilghman’s Eastern Shore of Maryland. With his latest novel, “The Right-Hand Shore,” Tilghman proves himself to be the authentic voice of that corner of the world as he imagines and delivers a brilliant prequel to his earlier novel “Mason’s Retreat.” Nobody captures more vividly the particular, peculiar — and timeless — qualities of Maryland’s tidewater country. Right from the start, he puts your senses on alert:
There is a slight breeze fruited with odors of the Chesapeake: sea grass pollen, clay flats, fish living and dead. It is September 8, 1920, eight o’clock in the morning, and the air above the Chester River is clear enough to reveal the rooflines of the waterman’s village on Kent Island, the silhouettes of the loblollies of Hail Point, the spars and poles of the oyster dredgers.
Edward Mason is visiting Miss Mary Bayly, a dying relative, in hopes of insuring that her large tidewater estate, Mason’s Retreat, will be left to him. What Edward assumes will be a brief courtesy call becomes instead an unforgettable daylong event, during which he hears the stories of those who claimed, worked, and were forever changed by this land, where “the sky is a riot of waterfowl and the light strangely colorless, pure” and distinctively beautiful.
He learns how Mary Bayly has transformed the estate into a modern dairy farm, with a mule barn “where they found the boy’s body.” He learns how her father, Wyatt Bayly turned the Retreat into a thousand-acre peach orchard that was felled by forces beyond his control – and just out of the reach of the science at his disposal. He learns how Mary’s grandfather unfeelingly sold his slaves when he realized that Emancipation would change everything.
Most of all, he learns of a strangely innocent love that transcended the mores of the time. While Mary was whisked off by her Mason mother to convent school in Paris and to Baltimore for additional education and an unsuccessful search for a suitable husband, her brother Thomas stayed at home with his father. His best friend was Randall, the son of his father’s black orchardist and the two boys were closer than brothers:
They hated it when one of them got hurt, fell hard, stubbed his toe, took a tree branch across the face. While the one cried, the other would curl down beside him and wait it out.
Everyone at Mason’s Retreat respected the primacy of the friendship between Randall and Thomas. Recognizing Randall’s quick intelligence, Wyatt imports tutors to school the two boys together before sending them off to college: Thomas to the University of Pennsylvania and Randall to Howard University.
Truly and magnificently color blind, Thomas falls for Randall’s beautiful younger sister Beal:
Sometimes even white women she’d see on the Retreat, town women come to call at the Mansion House, would tell her that she was a beautiful child. Those eyes, the white women would say to each other, as if they were talking about an animal, or a painting; such an unusual color. . . . But Thomas never said anything about her looks, and now that she was twelve, she wanted him to notice her. . . .
And then, in the middle of that long summer, before the peaches started to die in earnest and before it became clear that Emancipation maybe wasn’t everything it was supposed to be, a summer that was hot, when the air shimmered with bees and locusts, she was watching Thomas walk across the farmyard, and it came to her that for all the time she spent trying to make him notice her, she had never really looked at him, and that he was beautiful. . . . Beal didn’t think this was love – what a stupid idea, and besides, Thomas was white and she was colored, so love was impossible – she thought it was beauty.
Their improbable love story is at the center of the stories – even the tragic tale of the “body in the barn” — that enthrall Edward on that hot summer day. But Tilghman spins more than a love story – he captures the pleasures of discovery of a childhood spent on the waterfront of the Eastern, or right-hand, Shore. He shares the history of a peninsula that was – and still is – both Southern and Northern and marked by sharp contrasts of race and class.
Throughout, Tilghman’s measured, evocative prose perfectly echoes the special cadences of a world marked by the unchanging forces of time and tide. This is a magnificent – and great – novel that beckons readers to a very real place known as the right-hand shore. Readers won’t regret the time they spend there.
“The Right-Hand Shore” is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.