Andrea Reads America: Massachusetts

Andrea Reads America Massachusetts book map
Andrea Reads America: Massachusetts

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.

The Storied Live of A.J. Fikry book cover 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.

The Wedding by Dorothy West book cover

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.

The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever

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.

The Scarlet Letter book cover

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

She saw the children of the settlement, on the grassy margin of the street, or at the domestic thresholds, disporting themselves in such grim fashion as the Puritanic nurture would permit; playing at going to church, perchance; or at scourging Quakers; or taking scalps in a sham-fight with the Indians; or scaring one another with freaks of imitative witchcraft.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Slogging through Moby Dick

Originally published September 22, 2012.

It took me ten years and two tries, but I’ve finally done it. I have finally read Moby Dick. I don’t know why this was the one classic that I felt I could not miss, despite trying once and giving up after about 200 pages. Maybe it’s because I grew up on the Atlantic coast and as my mom says, “have salt water in my veins.” Or because I read Ahab’s Wife for book club and was intrigued enough to give the real deal a try. Or maybe it was the “Why Read Moby-Dick?” story I heard on NPR, or the quiet, impassioned discussion going on next to me at happy hour between two of my Barnes & Noble co-workers, one of whom was reading Moby Dick for the first time, the other who had written her honors thesis about it.

For whatever reason, I got a bee in my bonnet to read Moby Dick this summer. To decisively engage. To commit. And I have done it. Now, sipping a stiff drink in satisfaction and celebration, I feel like I’ve run a marathon. An eight week marathon of the mind – of dedication and of a stubborn commitment to a ridiculous endeavor. “Call me Ishmael” was a bang that made me jump, grinning, from the starting line. For 150 pages I was in it, and I was loving it. And then, as in any endurance race, the adrenaline and endorphins wore off as the start fell away behind me, and I realized how far away the finish was, and how maddeningly dull all that middle part was. For the next 350 pages, I suffered. I suffered through chapters on whale anatomy. I read five minutes each night before boring myself to sleep. I wondered, “Why I am doing this? I could be reading something engaging. Something easy or fun. Something not painful.” And I’d turn my light off and go to sleep.

But as I told my girlfriend, I was not going to pick up another book. I was not going to give up again. So I read magazines. Cleaned the house. Tried new cocktails. And read for five minutes at night before my eyes would go blurry with disinterest.

After 6 weeks of this, at about page 500, I hit the wall. For one thing, I never count pages.  Counting pages is like looking at the clock at work. If you’re counting pages, you’re reading the wrong book. So the fact that I was counting down the pages ’til I was done with this damn book was a major indicator that I was wasting precious hours of my life. I was skimming, for God’s sake. And I came really, really close to giving it up.

But out of stubbornness and spite, I pushed through. And about page 600, it started paying off. Moby Dick started getting good. Like, really good. After literally hundreds of pages of drudgery, of seemingly unnecessary tangents, of so much talk of the White Whale, and of Ahab’s madness, that I began to wonder if Moby Dick were even real, and if I were mad for my stupid single-mindedness for finishing this book, on page 692, I read this line:

There she blows! there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!

And I was covered in goose-bumps. Just writing that line gives me goose-bumps all over again. That line is part of the American collective consciousness. It is so well-known that everyone, and I mean everyone, recognizes it. And I was there. I earned that prize. Once I got there, I knew all of my hard work was worth it. I don’t know why, but getting there made me feel like I had accomplished something big. Along with Ahab, I was mad to finally find Moby Dick, and the search was finally over. All that hard work, all that suffering, all of that pursuit – it finally paid off. It’s Moby Dick! He is real! And he has finally made his magnificent appearance.

Maybe that’s why that line is so beloved – because everyone feels the same way when they get there. You are overcome with relief, this sense of “FINALLY! We’re at the point of it all!” And whether by accident or genius, Melville wove this masterpiece in such a way that by the time you get to that famed line, the story has become – dare I say it? – a page turner. After such an investment – those torturous filler chapters so seemingly pointless, the chasing of this elusive whale so maddening – I just could not put it down. I almost missed the kids’ bus because I couldn’t stop reading.

And when I turned the final page, and realized, “I have done it! I have read Moby Dick!” I was able to cross off a major “to-do” on my bucket list. I felt a peace in my soul. Ironically (or maybe not so ironically) the same peace Ahab might have felt when after losing a limb (and his mind) to Moby Dick, after a mad, pointless, hubris-filled chase of the white whale, he could die knowing he had finally faced his leviathan.