Imagine it is 1771. You are a young, southern girl living in Beaufort, North Carolina, and your father, a wealthy turpentine plantation owner, gives you your own personal slave for your 10th birthday. Now, fast forward to 1793, the year your daughter celebrates her 10th birthday, but instead of a slave, she gets yellow fever.
Imagining life during the American Revolution era is not pleasant, but it is exactly what Katy Simpson Smith does in her historical fiction novel, “The Story of Land and Sea.”
The novel begins in 1793 with 10-year-old Tabitha and her father, John. Readers learn that Tabitha’s mother, Helen, died soon after giving birth to her. This explains why Tabitha’s grandfather, Asa, is protective of her and makes sure she attends church every Sunday, like her mother would have wanted.
Asa is also protective of Tabitha because he blames John for Helen’s death. During the second half of the book, which spans from 1771 to 1782, readers learn Asa was not happy with Helen and John’s relationship. John was a pirate who helped fight the British, and Helen ran away with him on one of the ships, leaving Asa alone with a deteriorating plantation.
Because Helen enjoyed the sea, John takes Tabitha on a ship after she contracts yellow fever. He thinks this will make her feel better, but the trip takes a turn for the worse and ends with her death, leaving her corpse floating in a barrel of rum to preserve it.
Asa and John are both upset about Tabitha’s death, and John is left with no desire to run his supply store. Asa is left with an empty home and an empty heart.
After Tabitha’s death, there is one character left who affects the lives of everyone else in the novel, Helen’s slave Moll. Moll ends up being forced to marry Moses, a slave who works on a nearby plantation, and gives birth to a boy, Davy, followed by three girls. Moll has no trouble loving Davy because he is her firstborn, but she appears to fear intimacy with her three girls because they belong to the slave master.
One of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the novel is when Moll learns Davy has been sold to John to help him on his journey West.
Moll storms into Asa’s house, screaming and pleading with him not to sell her child. He of all people should know what it is like to lose a child, but after Asa argues how it is a good opportunity for Davy, Moll makes her way to the porch:
“She drops to her knees, and he steps back afraid. She places her palms on the porch and begins dragging them across the floorboards. The old wood, which has needed new paint for years, splinters into her hands.”
John and Davy make it out west and do well for themselves. Moll runs away, leaving her three children and husband behind. Asa is left with an empty home, baking his own bread, washing his own clothes, selling sections of his land and repeatedly rowing his boat out to sea to find solace. The characters experience great loss and subsequently lose themselves.
“Asa could keep rowing, past the banks into the bottomless ocean, could grieve without witnesses, could surrender his body to the unseen. But he is hungry, and is sorry now not to have caught a fish. He turns the boat again toward shore. The sea will be here in the morning.”