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Spartina by John Casey

One of the best books you’ll read this year (or in 1989)

I’ve just finished one of the best books I’ve ever read. Spartina by John Casey. A few weeks ago there was a rave review in the New York Times for John Casey’s most recent book, Compass Rose.  The reviewer said that readers should first read Spartina, published in 1989, before reading Compass Rose, and having read Spartina and then Compass Rose, I agree. And I’m not the only one – both books were being reprinted having sold out the week after that review.

The title comes from a swamp grass, spartina, which grows in the salt marsh of the Rhode Island coast where this novel takes place. The grass changes colour with the seasons, it is resilient and yet composts itself into the earth at the end of autumn before growing again in the spring.

Dick is our hero – a fisherman; lobster, crab, swordfish. Dick is married to his high school sweetheart May and they have two teenaged sons, Charlie and Tom. Dick has been building a boat, to be named Spartina, for several years - on his own, with very little money. As another summer approaches and Dick is struggling to support his family, he knows that if he just had the money to finish building and equipping his boat he would be able to earn much more than he does now working on other men’s boats. He needs to finish his boat – it has become an obsession.

So, we have Dick and his family, and the others who have lived here for generations. And we have the summer people – some who are now living on Sawtooth Point beyond the summer season. Some of the local fishermen are working for these people as handymen – something Dick has refused to do. Dick resents what he sees as a sense of entitlement of the wealthy, who expect to get what they ask for – they pay for help from the locals and don’t expect that they will be refused. Dick said he’d never do it, but desperate to finish his boat he accepts a job, to prepare a clambake and take the guests back and forth to the party by boat.

Elsie Buttrick is around that evening, and volunteers to help Dick and his son with the work. Elsie is about ten years younger than Dick, and we find both Dick and his son eyeing Elsie’s plump pink legs as she lugs water from the pond. Elsie grew us here among the wealthy; she’d gone away and come back educated, and now works as a Natural Resources Officer in the region – out to prevent guys like Dick, from fishing for crabs in protected areas.

The evening of the clambake Dick discovers that land his family once owned, sold to pay for his father’s medical care in his last illness, is now being developed. Where his family’s home once stood will be million dollar homes and cottages. “How nice, how nice”, says Dick with bitterness.

There are two couples among the summer people whose lives intersect with Dick’s, the Van Der Hoevel’s, Shyler and Marie, and Joxer Goode and his wife. Shyler is a film maker and decides that Dick would be a good subject to film while out swordfish fishing, Elsie encourages him – he can make money on the fish. Dick’s friend, Larry Parker, makes his boat available and off they go. Dick makes enough money to purchase and install the engine for this boat – but it is with “anger, envy and regret.”

Parker is a guy who works all the angles – he considers himself a “player” and accuses Dick of wallowing in his bitterness instead of getting into the action and taking advantage where he could.

I made pages of notes while I read this book – but part of the great pleasure of reading Spartina was that I knew nothing about the plot – so I don’t want to reveal any more of what happens to these characters. I will say that I loved the character of Dick – he is a thoroughly nice guy, he deals with his conflicting emotions in the only way he can, sometimes burying them and occasionally revealing himself in his struggle to keep his life together. This is a summer of unraveling for Dick – he’s beginning to have a hard time keeping his life in control – he feels a sense of unreality as he crosses over the line of commonsense and safety with Parker. He’s also crossing over a line with Elsie – knowing “he would be harmed’ and “knowing he was doing it willingly.”

I will also tell you that there is an amazing scene of a boat out in a hurricane that is worth the whole book – and the incredible description of the town and harbour after the hurricane has passed.

I don’t want to reveal any more of the story – it needs to be discovered by the reader. I can just say that I promise you will enjoy reading this book and care for these characters. And I suspect that, like me, as soon as you have finished Spartina, you’ll be reading Compass Rose next.

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