History is bursting with stories to be told while individual lives cry out to be shared. The Story of Land and Sea, Katy Simpson Smith’s dreamlike debut, tunnels us back to 1793 and the small town of Beaufort, North Carolina. It’s been a few years since the American Revolution, and many of the soldiers who fought have gone missing. The villagers, with every fiber of their being, are forced to deal with the War’s aftereffects: the rumblings and trepidation that have come with the constant assault of gunfire, the boom of cannons, and the tortured cries of the wounded.
Pirate and ex-soldier John has settled back into Beaufort after years of wandering. He lives in a four-room house with his eleven-year-old daughter, Tabitha, and sells “soundries” from a storefront on Main Street. Tabitha attends the local school where the children, mostly girls, pass the time “if their mothers are not birthing or too poor to attend.” Most of Beaufort’s other sons have left their father’s farms, heading for the Western States, intent on grasping “money instead of virtue.”
The only real figure of influence in this increasingly isolated town is John’s father-in-law, Asa, who has recently become a member of the newly-formed Continental Congress, even though he once harbored secret loyalist leanings. Asa has done well out of the War, amassing a fortune by cultivating a lucrative turpentine business which in turn financed Long Ridge, a grand house he built on his vast new estate. In this infant country where conflicts are often seen as personal and political, a rift has formed between father and son-in-law stemming from Asa’s daughter, Helen, who died in childbirth in the direst of circumstances.
With his parents long-dead and with ties to no one, John finds himself caught between competing rural families. Addled with wanderlust, he wants to take Tabatha away on one of the ships that frequently dock in Beaufort Harbor. Increasingly overprotective and distrustful of John, Asa wants to confine Tabitha to Long Ridge. Determined protect his granddaughter’s mortal soul, Asa is convinced that it was the sea that ultimately killed Helen. John, however, is everything a loyal father could possibly be. In an effort to protect Tabitha from death, God, and misery, he kidnaps his daughter, taking her away on his “black ship,” away from God and medicine.
Moving between Asa and John’s conflict to Helen’s teenage life at Long Ridge (“a world of almond cake and chicken pox”), Smith demonstrates considerable skill in presenting John as naive and intelligent, hemmed in by his lack of status while maintaining his strength of spirit. Loss has a way of paralyzing even the brave, as does love: seventeen-year-old Helen finds herself swept away by the ministrations of her handsome, exotic young paramour, John. In wistful tones, John remembers carrying Helen on deck in his seething, creaking ship, her smile reflected in the sun and the vast expanse of the sea mirroring their unbridled affection. John might be lonely after Helen’s death, yet for the moment, Tabitha is all he needs in the way of company.
Simpson Smith’s elegiac novel is filled with a combination of fundamentalist religion, death, and the perils of slavery. Death is not unusual—women died in childbirth, war claimed thousands of men, and yellow fever continued to be the scourge of the time. Desperate to escape, John imagines daily the freedom of the roiling sea, indifferent to him but clinging to him by night. He hungers for comfort, as does slave girl Moll, who befriended an infant Helen. Moll’s frenzied ruminations unleash her uninhibited desire to be free. Her efforts to walk in the shadow of her son, Davey, ultimately bring full circle this heartbreaking story of the land and sea.
From poor, sick Tabitha, who has a vision of herself as her mother, soaking up the open sea, to John’s own willful blindness, to Asa, this trembling, lonely slave owner confined to the land while trapped within his mannered speech and gentlemanly ways, to Moll’s ideas that God has placed them all to endlessly struggle, Smith tells of how love itself is born inside a cocoon, a precise and impossible hope.