I could not wait to get to Massachusetts. I love the darkness and the seasons, the rocks and the sea, and the characters of New England. The Scarlet Letter has a special place in my heart. I read it in 10th grade, and wrote a paper on it for my literature class, and that paper was when I fell in love with writing. As I dug into the novel to write about it at age 16, the paper became less about being an assignment and more about being an exciting investigation into the symbolism and themes of fiction set among Puritans. It was my first real taste of appreciating literature. And it was just as satisfying at 42.
I had a hard time deciding among all of the literature of Massachusetts. I’ve ultimately read eight novels from Massachusetts, and if you have any plans to visit the state, either in literature or in real life, you can find a list of those books at the bottom of this post. I’ve included four books on the map above because even though I didn’t write any notes on The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry when I read it, I really enjoyed the book and wanted to make sure it got a spot here.
Book: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
Author: Gabrielle Zevin, graduated from Harvard in Cambridge, MA
Setting: Modern Alice Island, MA
Category: Contemporary Fiction
As I mentioned above, I neglected to write any notes when I read this book back in May. However, I remember eating it up. It had books, it had a baby, it had a cantankerous, softy book store owner in a small island community off the coast of New England. It had love and humor and was really just right up my alley. I really enjoyed it, and I recommend it.
Book: The Wedding
Author: Dorothy West, lived in Martha’s Vineyard
Setting: 1950s Martha’s Vineyard, MA
Category: Literary fiction, African-American Fiction
The Wedding, set in a “colored” community in Martha’s Vineyard, is an exploration of just that: color in its shades of pale, nut-brown, ebony, and skin tones both among races and within the same race. Unlike most of the African-American fiction I’ve read, The Wedding is an exploration of Harvard-trained professors, black doctors, of socialite black women, of wealthy black society in Massachusetts, of wealthy 1950s African-Americans with maids and big houses.
The exploration of color is more than what I’ve read in many of my previous reads in my Andrea Reads America journey. In The Wedding, West does not just probe the tensions between black and white. She explores tensions within the community, and especially the attitudes towards blending: fair-skinned black folks marry whites or other fair-skinned blacks to preserve the right color (pale), and when someone in the community marries a dark-skinned person for love, they are shunned.
She had Gram and her mother watching her like hawks, making sure she understood that skin color was a direct barometer of virtue.
The most interesting scene in the book to me was when Shelby, blond-haired and blue-eyed child of a black father and white mother, wanders away from the Oval, the colored community. Her family spreads the word that she is lost, involves the police, and are in a panic for hours and hours while Shelby is missing. Meanwhile, Shelby wanders outside of the Oval, encounters whites of Martha’s Vineyard and is clearly lost, yet even with the description of what the missing child is wearing, none of the whites on the island put it together that Shelby is the missing child and therefore do nothing to respond to the missing child call. They’re looking for a dark-skinned child — an “Ovalite” — even though the description of the child doesn’t include the color of her skin. They make assumptions.
The book jumps back and forth in time, and from South to North in locale, building the history to the culmination of Shelby’s wedding day: Shelby a blond, blue-eyed daughter of a mixed color mother and dark father, to a white man. I won’t give away what happens when characters ignore love and marry only for color, status, and appearances.
Book: The Wapshot Chronicle
Author: John Cheever, born Quincy, Massachusetts
Setting: 1950s fishing village, MA
Categories: National Book Award Winner, Literary Fiction
I bought this book for three reasons: because I love John Cheever short stories, because I learned somewhere that Cheever’s stories were a strong influence for Mad Men, and because of circumstances in my life at the time. My Mom and I traveled to New York City together while I was reading Massachusetts, and I was between books, so I really wanted to buy a book while we were in NYC. We found a bookshop in Greenwich Village, and I saw this book there unexpectedly, and I was super excited to buy a book for my reading project from a bookshop in the Village.
I wasn’t crazy about this book. If you want a Massachusetts fishing village, read this book. The scenes in St. Botolphs, the small town by the sea, with hills and eccentrics and wild New England waters, put you in the landscape, fishing in a lake in the woods and plowing through waves in a rickety old boat. The writing is beautiful: each noun is evocative and each verb packed with action and imagery.
The Wapshot Chronicle chronicles the lives of three men of the Wapshot line: father Leander and his two sons, Moses and Coverly. Their paths are manly as is the writing. All the women in the book are either controlling, manipulative, or there to serve the men:
He had not fallen in love with her because of her gift with arithmetic, because of her cleanliness, her responsible mind or any other human excellence. It was because he perceived in her some extraordinary inner comeliness or grace that satisfied his needs.
This reduction of women to ornaments or obstacles made it difficult to me to enjoy the gorgeous aspects of this book, which is a shame. I’ve felt the same conflict when reading Cheever’s short stories, and as all of his male characters seem broken, frustrated, or somehow incomplete, like Don Draper in Mad Men, I wonder if that is part of his point, that when women are dispensable in a man’s life, when he can’t see half of the human population as full, independent persons outside of his own self-absorbed needs, he will never be whole. Or maybe he does just think women are inferior playthings for men, pleasant when they give men what men want, and annoying otherwise, who knows.
The Wapshot Chronicle explores the love between men, and their coming of age, and is sprinkled with vivid scenes from their lives, like beachside trysts, rainy rooftop escapades, and the running aground of Leander’s boat and its subsequent transformation into a gift shop. I’ve you’ve watched Mad Men, you will recognize elements of the show in Cheever’s works. The same mood carries through this book, though with an entirely different type of character, and in a seaside village rather than in Manhattan.
Book: The Scarlet Letter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne, born Salem, MA 1804
Setting: Puritan Boston, Massachusetts
Categories: Literary fiction, historical fiction
Set in somber, strict 17th Century Boston, The Scarlet Letter is the quintessential New England of those dark, Puritan times. Filled with delightfully dreary language, with words like odious, malevolent, wretched, and fiend showing up on nearly every page, Hawthorne paints a picture of pinched faces, dark forests, and shame and punishment for the sinner and protagonist, Hester Prynne. She is an unmarried woman who yet bears a child, and is sentenced to wear a scarlet letter A on the bosom of her dress to display her shame of adultery to the world.
Hawthorne portrays her as a strong and kind woman, good even, and filled with love: a protagonist and sympathetic character rather than a shameful one, despite her sin and her crime, which in those times were one and the same.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I read this book in high school, and it was the first paper I wrote that I was ever proud of. I kept the paper for years before finally getting rid of it in one of our many moves, and now I wish I could read it to know my young me interpretation.
The current me is interested in the public shaming of Hester Prynne, and her grace in the face of it. Her lover’s shame, though, remained hidden, and while it killed him — weakening him physically, hobbling him, making his life wretched — it also inspired passionate sermons about sin that elevated him to angelic status with his unknowing congregation. It was his guilt and hypocrisy that spoke so truly to them, though they didn’t know of either.
What also interested me is the portrayal of their child. She is always associated with sunlight and wildness. Even her name, Pearl, is luminescent. She is elfin and sprite-like, full of life, and most importantly, is a part of nature, in contrast to the black, artificial laws of man that were so unnatural as to punish the people and the act that created her. While her mother and father’s sin is associated with scarlet — red, blood, scars — Pearl is continually associated with green, the color of new growth and of life.
I very much enjoyed rereading this book and the Puritan Massachusetts it took me to. I couldn’t read this state without reading Nathaniel Hawthorne.
For Further Reading in Massachusetts
Books I’ve read:
– The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
– Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
– The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne
– Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Books I’d still like to read:
– Secret Harmonies, Andrea Barrett
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.
2 thoughts on “Andrea Reads America: Massachusetts”
Hi Andrea, still following your peregrinations from Wales, and admiring your tenacity. Some bookstore should wise up and supply you free. I will certainly read The Wedding, that’s a new title and author for me, and I like to be able to recommend American and Canadian literature in my bookshop. When you get to Vermont, try Betty, written in 1916 but hasn’t aged at all. Charlotte’s Web without spiders.