A massive explosion at the Lights of Long Island fireworks company begins the story of the extended Scudder family in The House on Salt Hay Road. It also presages a turbulent time of change for author Carin Clevidence’s
main characters - brother and sister Clayton and Nancy Poole, grandchildren of patriarch August Scudder. Not that their young lives (Clay is 12 and Nancy 19) haven’t already been sadly eventful: the untimely death of their successful father; their vivaciously beautiful mother’s battle with cancer; and their subsequent move to the marsh-infused home of their grandfather Scudder and his adult children Roy and Mavis, their mother’s siblings.
Clevidence is a talented writer, artfully portraying images that remain vivid in both her characters’ and her readers’ minds. After Clayton slips out of school following the bomb-like boom to search for his sister, he sees “On a lawn nearby, bits of orange and silver shone in the sunlight where a window had shattered and blown outward, along with an aquarium. Half a dozen goldfish lay strewn like bright fruit on the grass.” Later Clayton fails to realize, though, that while his sister appears unharmed from her horseback-riding mishap caused by the unexpected loud noise, their close relationship and future lives have also been blown outward.
After the appearance of the stranger from Boston in her Aunt Mavis’s work kitchen (also looking for answers after the colossal bang), Nancy begins to imagine a thrilling life beyond the restrictive confines of the seaside village:
“They would all be happy in Boston, she told herself. She felt her future billow out before her like a kite on a string, pulling the three of them forward.”
What Nancy doesn’t imagine is Clay not wanting to leave the old house on Salt Hay Road, the loneliness of a young married woman in a strange city living on a confined budget, and the difficulties of getting to know a man who is both a virtual stranger and your husband. Clevidence offers the reader insight into Nancy’s plight by having Mavis remember the circumstances of her own unhappy union. Readers observe that Mavis’s obsession with signs is merely a way for her to make sense of her own pain. It is only years later, when a measure of happiness finds her, that Mavis realizes that “Maybe the signs she’d looked for didn’t matter. Maybe no one ever knew for sure, and she could only pray and hope God heard her.”
Set in Long Island’s Great South Bay during the late 1930s, this treasure of a book succinctly evokes the nuances of time and place - a time and place that haunts young Clay as he matures to adulthood, treasuring memories of his greatest happiness and bearing the guilt pangs of his disastrous, immature mistakes. Clevidence expertly utilizes the story behind the Salt Hay house itself to foreshadow future Clay exploits across unknown currents. His love for the weathered structure that has seen its own share of water damage helps bring him ultimate understanding, self-forgiveness and healing.
Bringing her story full circle yet again, Grandfather Scudder’s career with the United States Life Saving Service on Fire Island serves as a harbinger for the family’s experiences and losses during the horrific hurricane of 1938. Pointing to wood used to patch his very home and discussing his wife, whom he rescued from a maritime disaster, “Scudder told his grandson that everything he had came out of the sea.” But in the end, he actually gives back quite a bit that is dear to him.
While this is Clevidence’s first novel, she has had numerous short stories published, has an MFA from the University of Michigan, and is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She is clearly a writer who can depict the sights and smells of past places and times, a writer who can imbue minor characters with full personalities and background stories that never seem forced, and a writer who makes readers care about her characters, even the somewhat unlikable ones, without excess sentimentality. Clevidence is an author I will watch for.