This Other Eden by Paul Harding
Published by W.W. Norton
Publication date: January 24, 2023
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Historical, Literary
In 1911 there was a small island off the coast of Maine comprised of a group of families who were the descendants of the island’s original 1792 settlers—an escaped slave, his Irish wife, and later, other refugees from society. The island is still there, but its inhabitants are long gone. Paul Harding’s novel, This Other Eden, is the elegiac recounting of their history, lives, and the events that led to their disappearance.
The citizens of Apple Island are all the result of interracial relationships between whites, Blacks, Native Americans, and European immigrants. There are three families and all have children of varying ages so a missionary teacher from the Relief Society comes to the island in the summer to teach them the basics. Beyond that, the islanders have limited interactions with mainlanders. They live on what they raise, catch, kill, and barter. In the modern world, they are almost an anthropological marvel, existing without electricity, indoor plumbing, appliances of any kind, cars, and foods like coffee and sugar.
To the contemporary reader This Other Eden sounds either horrifying or idyllic, but Harding renders the residents and the landscape without judgement. There is the island’s biracial matriarch, who adheres to the two books she knows by heart, the Bible and the collected works of Shakespeare. Her son is the result of rape by a white man, but while he is developmentally disabled, he’s a highly skilled carpenter who built their home, from felling the tree to making the cedar shingles. Her 15-year-old grandson is a talented artist who is moving to the mainland to get an art education. Others are not as gifted, but all work and live together in the truest sense of community.
Unfortunately, the pseudoscience of eugenics is taking hold in America and local councilmen decide the purity, and tourism opportunities, of Maine are being damaged by the proximity to an island of lunatics, “imbeciles”, and “abominations of God” living lives of depravity and filth. Soon enough they descend on Apple Island to forcibly examine and test the residents, using methods more often seen with livestock. This Other Eden crescendos when all are deemed unfit for society and ordered to evacuate.
Despite this turn of events, there is no manipulation of the heart-strings in the novel. Harding doesn’t present a false Eden of perfect lives and abundance, but the very real, hand-to-mouth, subsistence living of people who know no other way, but cause no harm. This is a poignant example of literary fiction right down to its title. Apple Island is seen by the mainlanders as a place of perversion because its inhabitants are different. And yet with Harding’s haunting prose, This Other Eden questions the very meaning of concepts like dignity, respect, and tolerance, leaving the reader to wonder who is the more civilized, the islanders or those who seek to destroy their way of life?
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*I received a free copy of this book from W.W. Norton in exchange for an honest review.*