The brave new world of a better life through planned breeding was inaugurated in the summer of 1912, at the first International Eugenics Congress held in London. Although Charles Darwin did not intend to apply his theories of natural selection and the survival of the fittest practically to humans, the generation that followed him had no such qualms. Indeed, the keynote speaker at the Congress was Darwin’s son, Major Leonard Darwin. We often think of Nazi Germany when the term “eugenics” comes up, but, of course, the United States has its own legacy of racial categorizations, immigration restrictions, and forced sterilizations of human beings deemed “unfit.”
Paul Harding’s extraordinary new novel, This Other Eden, is inspired by the real-life consequences of eugenics on the island of Malaga, Maine, which, from roughly the Civil War era to 1912, was home to an interracial fishing community. After government officials inspected the island in 1911, Málaga’s 47 residents, including children, were forcibly removed, some of whom were relocated to institutions for the “feeble-minded”. In 2010, the state of Maine offered an official “public apology” for the incident.
You could imagine many ways a historical novel about this horror could be written, but none of them would give you any idea of the strange spell of This Other Eden — his dynamism, bravado and melancholy. Harding’s style has been called “Faulknerian,” and perhaps it’s apt, given her penchant for sometimes paragraph-long sentences that collapse past and present. But in contrast to Faulkner’s writing, the “Lost Cause” Harding commemorates is that of an accidental Eden, where so-called “white Negroes and white coloreds” live together normally, “neither of them [giving] a thought… of what the people beyond the island saw as their own polluted blood.”
Harding begins traditionally enough with the origins of Málaga, here referred to as “Apple Island,” where, again verging on history, he describes the arrival of a formerly enslaved man named Benjamin Honey and his Irish-born wife, Patience. Together they build a cabin on a bed of crushed shells, have children, plant an orchard and make room for more castaways.
The novel’s present tense begins in that fateful year 1911, when a “Governor’s Council” of bureaucrats and doctors descend ashore to measure the islanders’ skulls with metal calipers and thumb through their gums. Within the next year, the Islanders are evicted; their houses burned down. The resort industry is becoming popular in Maine, and islander settlement is considered a costly blight on the landscape.
Harding tailors this tragedy by focusing on a character who has a chance at what many would consider a better life. Ethan Honey is honest enough to pass for white, and his artistic talent earns him the backing of a wealthy sponsor. Striking for detail, Harding describes how Ethan is lovingly groomed by his grandmother on the eve of his departure and how the tough islanders throw a celebratory feast of lobsters, mushrooms and berries. harding says:
The islanders were so accustomed to diets of wind and fog, to meals of slow-roasted sun and poached storm clouds, so accustomed to devouring hopped shadows and broiled echoes; they found themselves amazed by such an abundance of food and drink.
Ethan’s fate remains uncertain, but a century later his surviving paintings will make up the bulk of an imaginary exhibit in Maine, commemorating the centennial of the Islanders’ eviction. Harding makes his readers feel how the exhibition catalog’s measured scholarly prose leaves so much out: the exhaustion of the everyday working life of the Islanders, the nuance of human relationships, the arrogant certainties of racism. All of these elements and more are what Harding condenses into this intense marvel of a historical novel.