The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 368 pages; $27).
With The Right-Hand Shore, Christopher Tilghman gives us a quietly beautiful novel about a family, a place, and the ties that both bind and constrain them.
The title refers to Mason’s Retreat, an estate on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The Masons have been part of the land since the days after the Gunpowder Plot when their ancestor, the Emigrant, was exiled there. Like people, the land can be complicated.
During the Civil War, Maryland was a border state. Allegedly neither Confederate nor Union, some people’s loyalties were still divided. Maryland’s location had a strategic importance for both North and South, and each side hoped to sway citizens to their cause. As Tilghman writes, “In the North, there was one principle, one war, one story; in the South, one cause, one defense, one history; but in the borders, in the middle ground, there was as many principles and wars and histories as there were human beings to hold them, to survive them, to preserve them.”
Even before the outbreak of war in 1861, some men in Maryland knew that slavery was a dying institution. Ogle S. Mason, the “Duke,” is such a man. In 1857, Mason sells most of his field hands but keeps the house slaves. He manumits them but fails to disclose them that information. This is the kind of man he is. On the day the slaves are sold, his daughter, Ophelia, watches, heartsick and helpless.
Tilghman does not shy away from subjects like these. Mason is interested in the bottom line, and he knows that by selling his slaves, he can make a profit. He reads the air and sniffs that war is coming. Mason does not care that he rips families asunder. But his daughter does; she lives with this regret for the rest of her life.
Perhaps because of the scene Ophelia witnesses in 1857, she feels no ties to Mason’s Retreat. She wants as far from the Eastern Shore as she can get. Upon her father’s death, she does not inherit the property; rather, because of some archaic custom, only men may inherit the land. Her husband, Wyatt Bayly, owns the estate.
Even though he was not born there, Bayly loves the land and grows peaches. While Ophelia flees for Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Paris with their daughter Mary, Bayly stays. The land entrances him; it later kills him. Their son, Thomas, stays with his father and feels abandoned by his mother.
Mary, interestingly, feels a kinship to her ancestral home, although she is miles away from it. Mary is bound to the land. Thomas, in contrast, feels jealousy when his father prefers his African-American best friend, Randall, over his own son. Forbidden love forces Thomas to flee his home. He later renounces all ties to it.
Ties to family and ties to land may be the prevailing themes of this novel, but Tilghman introduces other elements as well. Mary is also constrained by her gender, her class, and her religion (she’s Catholic). Randall’s sister, Beal, is confined by the same things that hamper Mary, but race and beauty also limit Beal.
By 1920, Mary is unmarried, childless, and dying of cancer. She must find a male heir for Mason’s Retreat. Edward Mason arrives with big dreams and dollar signs in his eyes. He hears the history of the place and of the family. Mesmerized, Edward finds the place pulling at him in ways he never expected.
Likewise, Mason’s Retreat entrances the reader. More than that, though, the family draws you in. Readers are vested in this family and in this place. Reading this novel compels you to read to the end, despite the rampant racism of some of the characters. That racism is to be expected since the novel takes place from the 1850s to 1920.
Tilghman’s research is impeccable. Not only does he tackle the darkest days of American history, but he also intersperses European history throughout. Science and botany are also found within these pages. The Right-Hand Shore will appeal to a wide-ranging audience: history buffs, budding botanists and farmers, and all those who love an epic story.
The writing here is elegant. Tilghman takes readers back and forth through time seamlessly. However, the past he describes is always more interesting than the present. In some instances, this reader finds it difficult to discern who is narrating the passages. At one point, I even wonder if Tilghman tells the story from the place itself. That is not the case.
I think, though, that such a point of view would have made a good novel an even better one. The setting drives this story and actually becomes Tilghman’s strongest character.