Thursday, April 22, 2021

"Margreete's Harbor"

Eleanor Morse is the author of White Dog Fell from the Sky and An Unexpected Forest, which won the Independent Publisher’s Gold Medalist Award for Best Regional Fiction in the Northeast United States, and was selected as the Winner of the Best Published Fiction by the Maine writers and Publishers Alliance. Morse has taught in adult education programs, in prisons, and in university systems, both in Maine and in southern Africa. She lives on Peaks Island, Maine.

Morse applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Margreete's Harbor, and reported the following:
From page 69:
“Can I have some, Grandma?” Eva asked, touching Margreete’s sleeve.

“No.” It was that little one with the braids, hair falling into her eyes. “This is my jello.” She preferred the red jello to the green. She remembered once being invited to a garden party where they’d served green jello mixed with cottage cheese so it looked like a pale vegetable, like a celery stalk. You had to raise your little finger when you held your teacup or you were considered uncouth. Which people thought she was. She didn’t know why she was asked, and she never was again.

The little one was staring.

“What are you looking at?”

“Your bowl.”

“This is my jello, do you understand?”

“Did you make it?”

“I found it. Finding establishes ownership.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means it’s mine.”

“What’s that on top?”

“Whipped cream.”

“Can I have some whipped cream?”

“It’s in the refrigerator, but sometimes the squirt can explodes.”

“I don’t want any.”

She looked at Eva. “How old are you?”
This page, at the beginning of Chapter 12, does give a reasonably good window into the book. A grandmother suffering from the early stages of dementia, has nearly burned down her kitchen. She refuses to leave her house to move into a care facility, so her daughter, son-in-law, and their three children end up moving to Maine and living with her under one roof.

What page 69 reveals is a grandmother who's unsure who this child is who's living in her house. She has forgotten the child's age and is fiercely protective of what's hers (her bowl of jello). It also reveals how one by one, the children in the family attempt to establish a relationship with their half-scary, half-fascinating grandmother.

Margreete, the grandmother in Margreete's Harbor, was meant to be a minor character in the story, but she elbowed her way to the center of the book. In the early stages of writing this book, her voice was clear to me right away: irreverent, definite, often slightly confused, jokey with people she likes. There are many glimmers of clarity, even wisdom in her, as in this example when she's talking to her grandson. "When you grow up, don't ever try to love someone you don't love. And don't ever try to not love someone you do love."

The book is set in midcoast Maine between 1955 and the end of the 1960s. Liddie, the mother, is a professional cellist. Harry, her husband, teaches history in high school until it becomes clear that he isn't cut out for the job. Their oldest child, Bernie, is gay during a time when most kids in the 1950s have no idea what this means. Eva, their middle child is a budding musician, and Gretchen, their youngest, is trying to figure out how the world works, with plenty of bumps along the way.

Swirling around the family is a world that's changing fast: the civil rights movement, young men drafted into the Vietnam War, mass protests in the streets, cities burning, this country's leaders assassinated. Each member of the family responds to this tumultuous time differently. I hope that readers will see how echoes from this era follow us into today's world. Alice Cary, in a starred BookPage review, writes," Full of love, triumph and a boatload of heartbreak, Margreete's Harbor is a celebration of life's inevitable messiness. As after any good visit with family or dear friends, you will leave feeling satisfied while yearning for more."
Visit Eleanor Morse's website.

--Marshal Zeringue