This one was set on Cape Cod, and Hoffman did a wonderful job with the setting! This is the Cape Cod of the locals–fishermen and cranberry bogs and wild blueberries. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but I’m glad I added it to my list.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books set in each state, with an emphasis on books where the setting really becomes another character, or where we learn something about the history, geography, or people of that state. Right now we are in Massachusetts.
Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman was not quite the magical realism novel I was expecting, but it was a wonderful depiction of life on Cape Cod. It was actually more of a collection of short stories, loosely linked by a connection to a house–stories from the various inhabitants of the house throughout the years, from when it was built, shortly before the American Revolution, to more modern times. There is a little magic in the recurring image/vision of a white blackbird seen by many of the characters over the years, and the occasional whispers of “witch.” There are other touches of magic–like the sea serpent that is probably a whale or seal. Or the man whose leg was bitten by a halibut who coughs up halibut teeth for years afterward.
As I mentioned in my review of Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham, Hoffman mentions The Practical Navigator. She doesn’t clarify which version, but the book is mentioned in the first chapter of Blackbird House, which takes place shortly before the American Revolution, and therefore before Bowditch wrote his American Practical Navigator. But, I think the fact that it’s mentioned is both homage to Bowditch’s later work, and acknowledgement of the importance of the book to local seafaring folk of the region. (And, of course, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all if I hadn’t read the Bowditch book first!)
There were some lovely descriptions of Cape Cod–the place and the people.
ON THE FARTHEST EDGES OF THE CAPE, it was widely believed that cranberries first came to earth in the beak of a dove. If that was indeed true, then heaven was red, and the memory of paradise could be plucked from the low-growing shrubs that grew in the dampest, muddiest bogs. …
To Larkin Howard the bogs were heaven and earth and everything in between; he had worked harvesting cranberries from the time he was twelve, and his hands were permanently dyed red.
Hoffman starts, right from the beginning, making the connection between the locals on Cape Cod and the sea:
Still, his was a town of fishermen; much as soldiers who can never leave their country once they’ve buried their own in the earth, so here it was the North Atlantic that called to them, a graveyard for sure, but home just as certainly. And John was still one of them, at least for the present time. If a man in these parts needed to earn enough to buy fences and cows and turnips, he knew where he had to go.
But, for the most part, the story stays on land with the women who wait for their men to return… or not. And the land is beautiful.
It was the time of year when the sweet peas have their last wild bloom. Our cows were crazy for them, and the milk they gave was especially sweet at this time of year. There was dust rising up from the road to our house, yellow dust on the white clapboards, milkweed spinning across the fields.
The stories themselves were nice, but not fantastic. My favorite was the chapter which takes place after the end of World War II, when Lion brings his new wife Dorey to meet his mother Violet (who we met in the previous story).
She knew how to test people. She’d made halibut stew and baked beans and molasses bread for supper, every dish she hated; she’d added handfuls of salt, too much pepper, just to test Lion’s wife. She had stuffed the pillow on the dining-room chair where her visitor would be sitting with brambles and nettles and straw. She’d put stones in the bottom of the coffee cup at Dorey’s place setting. She’d left the door to the outhouse open, so that ice swept through and anyone going inside would surely freeze her bottom. At the very last, Violet removed the board in the attic that blocked off the nest honeybees had made in the rafters.
I loved that Dorey was equal to Violet’s tests–that she didn’t get angry or give up. This story, in particular, had a “tall tale” feeling to it–it’s reminiscent of the Princess and the Pea. The white blackbird that appears momentarily in many of the stories adds to that feeling, and perhaps makes us suspend our belief a bit more than we normally would.
As might be expected from the title, Blackbird House did have a blackbird–though at least once it was referred to as a crow, and Hoffman isn’t very clear about its size so it’s difficult to tell if it is, indeed, a blackbird or some other kind of black bird. There are other common New England birds mentioned, however: red-winged blackbirds, goldfinches, cardinals, wild turkeys, catbirds, red-tailed hawks, coots, and a vague, generic “duck.” There are also muskrats, red foxes, fireflies, pitcher plants, wild orchids, sweet peas, turnips, and, of course, sealife–halibuts, bluefish, pilot whales, sea serpents that might turn out to be whales or seals, littlenecks and quahogs, and eels.
Overall, Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman was a lovely addition to our list, if not as outstanding as I’d hoped. I’m interested in reading more by Hoffman, as I have a feeling this is not, perhaps, her masterpiece. But it definitely worked to give us a good feel for Cape Cod and Massachusetts.