antiwar movement, book review, character-driven narrative, civil rights movement, dementia, Eleanor Morse, feminism, historical fiction, literary fiction, Maine, marriage, music, political made personal, Sixties
Review: Margreete’s Harbor, by Eleanor Morse
St. Martin’s, 2021. 384 pp. $28
One day in 1955, Liddie Bright gets the phone call she’s long dreaded: Her mother, Margreete, has set fire to her kitchen, final proof that she can no longer live alone. An institution is out of the question; Margreete would never go. A woman who has survived three husbands and can be stubborn even in her lucid moments has equally effective ways of exerting her will at the times her clearer faculties desert her. So someone needs to care for her, and Liddie’s elected, or believes she is, which amounts to the same thing.
Trouble is, Liddie, her husband, Harry, and their two kids, Bernie and Eva, have a settled, more or less happy life in Michigan. Margreete lives in Burnt Harbor, Maine. Liddie, a professional cellist, has begun to establish herself with local ensembles after years of hard work. Harry has a teaching job he likes and good prospects. Bernie and Eva don’t want to go anywhere.
But the family does move, perhaps with too little marital conflict, though Morse gets a lot of mileage out of her premise. As the years progress, each character grapples with internal changes and those around them, or tries to. Since we’re mostly talking about the Sixties, there’s upheaval, and the author finds great meaning hitching the personal to the political. Harry, a conscientious objector during World War II, feels the Vietnam War like an insult and sounds off in his classrooms. Bernie’s only friend is Black, which puts the civil rights marches in an intimate context. Liddie, though less politically committed than her husband or son, nevertheless reflects the feminism in the air as she tries to figure out why her marriage constrains her.
Consequently, Margreete’s Harbor consists of small moments writ large, what the publishing industry calls “a quiet book,” an often pejorative label. After all, who wants to buy a “quiet” book? (Probably more people than editors realize.) That’s a pity, because you can always tell when an author injects noise for its own sake, and if those books sell better, they do so through shadow or trickery, not substance.
Instead, Morse gives you characters as deep as the Maine harbor on which they live, contradictory, sometimes cranky, secretive, and altogether real, depicted in gorgeous prose. She’s not afraid to show you their faults, to the extent that I have the urge to bang Harry’s and Liddie’s heads together—he, for his preaching and inability to admit mistakes; and she, for her self-pity. Yet their struggle redeems them, for they want to understand what happened to their dreams and their marriage, which, at times, feels like an increasingly leaky vessel. I love the way Morse portrays the kids, who battle for parental attention, reach for or push one another away, and try to find out who they are.
But Margreete’s the center, in many ways, and the keenly observed, loving portrait of a woman losing her mind will stay with you:
Some days she could think almost like normal, and other days everything was so mixed up — the jumble inside her, what happened yesterday, what did she eat for breakfast, who was that man who cooked in the kitchen and called everything a blue plate special. Words came from her mouth that she knew weren’t right the minute she said them, but the words she searched for fell down holes. She could see her blunders on the faces lifted to hers. The way strangers called her honey as though she were seven years old. The way they spoke loud to her as though she was deaf. She wasn’t deaf, she was haywire. If she could open her brain for them, they’d see. They would see the circuits floundering for their snaps. They would see the mess in there and know she was doing damn well considering what she had to work with.
If I have one complaint about Margreete’s Harbor, it’s the scope. The narrative has an interior feel, which I accept, to a point, because the family relationships matter most. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to see a wider camera angle, particularly to reveal Burnt Harbor. There’s a classroom, a fast-food joint, a principal’s office, all of which could exist anywhere—and again, we’re back to interiors. I want to feel the town vibe, a little, see a crowd scene. The brevity of certain chapters also perplexes me—scope in a different sense—though I understand that Morse has a many years to cover, changes in season, and so forth.
But these objections shouldn’t keep you from reading an excellent book. Whether you like relationship novels or wish to discover (or relive) the Sixties, portrayed here with great fidelity, you’ll be rewarded.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review, where this post appears in different form, as does my interview with the author.