Tag Archives: The Right-Hand Shore

Bound to the Land

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.




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Spotlight on The Right-Hand Shore

I am reading Christopher Tilghman’s The Right-Hand Shore.

The book started slowly, but the pace picked up probably before the first chapter was through.  Tilghman’s story is sweeping in its scope.  I am drawn into this place and this family.  Tilghman’s use of perspective is almost old-school yet fresh at the same time.  I have to know what happens.  I urge you to get this novel.  It is well-written and compelling.  If you are looking for great historical fiction, well, you found it.  Would be a great pick for Mother’s Day for your mom!

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Mother, May I Read a Book?

Happy May Day!  Ah, May, warm weather, blooming flowers, plentiful sunshine, and good books.  What more could we ask for?

May also brings us that most important of holidays: Mother’s Day.

Why not start a book club with your mom?  Include your friends, your mom’s friends, and their moms.  It’s a great way to get your nearest and dearest reading.

May I suggest these titles?

What to pick up now:

The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman.  This book is Book Passage’s Signed First Editions Club pick for May.  Tilghman will be signing copies of his book and doing a reading at Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS, on May 16.  The Right-Hand Shore  is about race, class, forbidden love, family history and secrets all in the wake of the Civil War.

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger.  Boy, is this getting a lot of buzz!  Amina moves from Bangladesh to Rochester, New York.  She met George online and their marriage is an arranged one.  In the nineteenth-century, Amina would have been called a mail-order bride.  There is lots of hilarity, second guessing, and heartache in this one.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.  Fountain will read from and sign copies of his novel at Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS, on May 23.  Billy and what is left of his unit are dubbed heroes after surviving a major battle in Iraq.  They are invited to a Dallas Cowboys football game and participate in halftime in this funny and heartwrenching story.

All Woman and Springtime by Brandon W. Jones.  North Korea, forced labor camps, a math prodigy, sex slavery.  All these are topics in All Woman and Springtime, a novel that has been compared to Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha.  This novel will join the ranks of other recent books whose setting or topic is North Korea.  Should be interesting.

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones.  This is set at the turn of the last century in England and will appeal to Downton Abbey fans, of which I am one.  A train wrecks, leaving passengers stranded.  They seek refuge with a family.  One of the passengers has a history with the lady of the house.  Sounds intriguing.

An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer.  An outcast who loses herself in book attends Wellesley College.  Naomi’s past is tragic and she soon finds kindred spirits in the Shakespeare Society.

Coming Soon:

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller.  I was lucky enough to get my hands on an ARC of this one and let me tell you it is great!  Be sure to check back soon for my interview with the author.  Bullying, secret societies, insects, and Edward R. Murrow hallucinations make this a hit.  The Year of the Gadfly will be released May 8.

Home by Toni Morrison.  No one is like Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize.  The first Morrison novel I read was The Bluest Eye, a book that not only made me cry but also made me think.   Home explores the bonds of siblings and the aftermath of war.  If it is anything like Morrison’s other work, it is sure to be a hit.  It comes out May 8.

The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel.  Set in Florida during the economic collapse, this novel is a literary noir with lots of jazz.  Mandel explores the unreliability of memory in her novel, a very interesting topic.  The Lola Quartet will be released May 15.

I Couldn’t Love You More by Jillian Medoff.  Eliot is happy with her partner Grant and their three daughters, two of which are her stepdaughters.  Then, an old love comes back into her life with shocking consequences.  Medoff asks which of your children would you save if you could.  This one could be THE summer’s biggest beach read.  Look for it May 15.

What are you waiting for?  Get to reading!  And enjoy.




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