The Story of Land and Sea

The Story of Land and Sea

3.5 8
by Katy Simpson Smith

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Set in a small coastal town in North Carolina during the waning years of the American Revolution, this incandescent debut novel follows three generations of family—fathers and daughters, mother and son, master and slave, characters who yearn for redemption amidst a heady brew of war, kidnapping, slavery, and love.

Drawn to the ocean, ten-year-old

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Set in a small coastal town in North Carolina during the waning years of the American Revolution, this incandescent debut novel follows three generations of family—fathers and daughters, mother and son, master and slave, characters who yearn for redemption amidst a heady brew of war, kidnapping, slavery, and love.

Drawn to the ocean, ten-year-old Tabitha wanders the marshes of her small coastal village and listens to her father’s stories about his pirate voyages and the mother she never knew. Since the loss of his wife Helen, John has remained land-bound for their daughter, but when Tab contracts yellow fever, he turns to the sea once more. Desperate to save his daughter, he takes her aboard a sloop bound for Bermuda, hoping the salt air will heal her.

Years before, Helen herself was raised by a widowed father. Asa, the devout owner of a small plantation, gives his daughter a young slave named Moll for her tenth birthday. Left largely on their own, Helen and Moll develop a close but uneasy companionship. Helen gradually takes over the running of the plantation as the girls grow up, but when she meets John, the pirate turned Continental soldier, she flouts convention and her father’s wishes by falling in love. Moll, meanwhile, is forced into marriage with a stranger. Her only solace is her son, Davy, whom she will protect with a passion that defies the bounds of slavery.

In this elegant, evocative, and haunting debut, Katy Simpson Smith captures the singular love between parent and child, the devastation of love lost, and the lonely paths we travel in the name of renewal.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Set on the North Carolina coast during and following the American Revolution, this debut novel centers on Asa, owner of a small turpentine plantation, whose daughter, Helen, falls in love with soldier and sometime pirate John and goes to sea with him after the war when her father refuses to bless the marriage. Rounding out the cast of primary characters is Helen's slave, Moll, whose lack of choice in creating her own destiny is sharply contrasted with Helen's. Somewhat ironically, despite the setting in a time of war, it is the females' lives that are most at risk, as three generations of women succumb to childbirth or illness. There is a pervasive sense of loneliness and loss throughout the novel. Smith's spare prose and storytelling style is resonant of oral history or folk tales, and the early chapters focusing on John and his daughter Tabitha, and her desire for the sea, call to mind Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife. At first, this style creates something of a remove for the reader, and it's not until the story of John and Helen's courtship that one begins to be emotionally invested. VERDICT Despite the many sad events, the reader eventually engages, and the novel ends with a note of hope.—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis
The New York Times Book Review - Michael Peed
The grandiosity of this first novel's title belies the wise and poignant understatement of the narrative's language and form…Smith's style is compressed yet contemplative, intensely lyrical in its descriptions of the 18th-century Southern cultural landscape. Her point of view shifts continually—between men and women, old and young, free and enslaved—as she patiently plumbs the horrifying complexities of everyday life.
The New York Times - Carmela Ciuraru
From the start, Ms. Smith's spare, rhythmic prose captivates…Her refusal to serve up false redemption is admirable.
Publishers Weekly
A bereaved father and his son-in-law struggle to understand the tragedies that have befallen them in Smith’s debut novel, which is set among the marshes of coastal North Carolina during the uncertain time of the American Revolution. John, a widowed soldier, is perplexed by the faith of others in a God who takes so much and gives so little. When his beloved daughter, Tabitha, contracts yellow fever, he stows her away with him on a schooner bound for Bermuda in a desperate attempt to curb the ravages of the disease. Tabitha’s grandfather, Asa, owner of a small plantation called Long Ridge, grieves over the loss of his granddaughter. He also mourns her mother, his only daughter Helen, whom John stole away for a happy interlude of love and freedom on the high seas before her untimely death in childbirth. Helen’s slave companion, Moll, like Asa, feels left behind, married off to another slave she did not know. Her only consolation is her feisty first-born son Davy, although she has other children, all girls. When John decides to strike out over land on a journey westward, Moll’s heart is irrevocably shattered. Smith’s soulful language of loss is almost biblical, and the descriptions of her characters’ sorrows are poetic and moving. (Aug.)
“A luminous Revolutionary War novel set to be the debut of the year”
David Gates
“Smith hasn’t merely evoked late-18th century American lives on shore and at sea-she’s invented them afresh…She doesn’t peddle the cozy illusion that, after all, these were people just like us; while reading THE STORY OF LAND AND SEA, we become just like them.”
Anita Shreve
“The arresting prose, vividly original characters, and narrative drive with which Smith tells this story of desperate familial love on a long-ago coast provided this reader with several hours of pure pleasure and a rare glimpse of grace in a fictional world.”
Bret Anthony Johnston
“A pristine and powerful book…[Smith’s] voice is a poet’s and her vision is as expansive as the ocean, as the history in its depths. In her gorgeous and heart-rending first novel, she lays bare the hearts of parent and child, slave and master, and, most impressively, her readers.”
Paul Yoon
“A marvel. With prose as meticulous as brushstrokes, I can think of no other debut filled with such wonder, grace, and beauty…a tremendous achievement, a masterful exploration of parenthood and faith…An heir apparent to Michael Ondaatje and Marilynne Robinson, Katy Simpson Smith has written a book for all of us.”
Marilyn Stasio
“The grandiosity of this first novel’s title belies the wise and poignant understatement of the narrative’s language and form...Smith’s style is compressed yet contemplative, intensely lyrical in its descriptions of the 18th-century Southern cultural landscape.”
Us Weekly
“[A] moving family saga.”
the Oprah Magazine O
“A luminous debut…”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“Smith has written something wondrous and rare in her coruscating debut novel…In quiet, powerful language, The Story of Land and Sea takes us to a South that has been forgotten, blotted out by the stain of war, and breathes life into early history.”
O: the Oprah Magazine
“A luminous debut…”
Huffington Post
“Morally resolute, emotionally nuanced, painstaking researched, and gorgeously expressed, Smith’s debut marks her as a historical novelist to look out for.”
“Hypnotic…Smith employs a style of impressively measured, atmospheric understatement in her unabashedly stark descriptions, and we thrill to watch her characters row stoically into a darkening future.”
The Independent Weekly
“With her preternaturally mature debut, Smith makes a persuasive bid to join the ranks of Hilary Mantel and Marilynne Robinson-people who have informed visions of history and the writing gifts to make them sing… Spartan, lyrical prose chimes in tune with austere times, wringing beauty from hard-bitten straits.”
BBC Culture
“Smith’s poetic language and astonishing vision make these stories of loss and endurance vivid.”
New York Times
“Smith’s spare, rhythmic prose captivates.”
Clarion-Ledger (Jackson
“Often, a book with sensational advance press doesn’t live up to the hype. Not so with Smith’s remarkable debut novel…Masterfully told with the assurance and grace of a mature artist, this novel marks the debut of an authentic, exciting new voice among American writers.”
“THE STORY OF LAND AND SEA is a striking debut novel that reads like poetry and will linger like mythology, as Simpson’s language and metaphors weave threads of magic through each sentence.”
Interview Magazine
“Smith lyrically but firmly draws us still back in time to reveal the lives that surround her character…Transporting, tragic, both tranquil and turbulent, Smith captures life in any time period—but especially this era of newfound freedoms—with grace and powerful prose.”
“Smith has a real gift for describing both hope and despair, which is one of the hardest things for an author to do well. She’s also gifted at drawing realistic, three-dimensional characters, particularly Tabitha and her grandfather…Smith is absolutely a writer to watch.”
Lemuria Bookstore Blog
“With lucid prose, historical and cultural accuracy, and a set of complex yet relatable characters, this debut novel from Jackson native Katy Simpson Smith has been one of the best I’ve read this year…Like water, this story, its characters, and its words are fluid and powerful.”
New Orleans Advocate
“[An] assured and lovely first novel...”
Oxford American
“THE STORY OF LAND AND SEA is a memorable debut, rich with small, sharp moments of observation and understanding…A deeply introspective novel…Smith weaves intricate patterns of motive and action that result in heartbreaking moral ambiguity.”
Washington Post
“Haunting…The Story of Land and Sea’s finely wrought language blends startling details of the everyday with a dreamy, aphoristic quality. The effect is to root the novel in its historical moment but to reach toward the universal in its exploration of love and grief.”
Raleigh Durham News & Observer
“Smith renders a beautifully woven epic tale of three generations of a family struggling to survive slavery, war and yellow fever in the late 1700s in Beaufort, N.C.”
Chapter 16/Nashville
“For all her mastery of the willful moral ambiguity that lies in the hearts of her characters, Smith is equally adept at describing small but heartbreaking moments in relationships...It’s not only among the most assured debut novels in recent memory, it heralds the birth of a major new talent.”
Charlotte Observer
“Smith renders a beautifully woven epic tale of three generations of a family struggling to survive slavery, war and yellow fever in the late 1700s…a rich story.”
Durham-Herald Sun
“With spellbinding storytelling and historical basis, [Katy Simpson Smith] draws readers into the literary sea with this debut novel…she knows her history well but also knows human nature, exposing it in another time in a way we can feel as truth.”
Kirkus Reviews
An unvarnished tale of seafaring, slavery and new beginnings set in post-Revolutionary North Carolina. In her debut novel, Smith takes liberties with linear narrative and employs ever shifting points of view but still doesn't quite manage to imbue her stoic characters with inner lives. As the Revolution trickles to an end, the seaside town of Beaufort is in decline as its once-thriving harbor empties and its young men seek opportunity elsewhere. Aging widower Asa, who owns a turpentine plantation, maintains a prickly detente with his son-in-law, John, a former pirate who ran away to sea with Asa's only daughter, Helen, who later died giving birth to a daughter, Tabitha. When Tabitha contracts yellow fever at age 10, John thinks, in desperation, that a sea voyage will restore her health. His hopes dashed, John returns to Beaufort to bury Tabitha alongside Helen. The scene shifts to earlier, happier times: Helen and John, a penniless sailor-turned-soldier, meet at a regimental tea and quietly fall in love. While John is off fighting the British, Helen expertly runs the turpentine enterprise while Asa pursues political ambitions. John and Helen reunite after she escapes captivity aboard a British ship. (All potential for swashbuckling romance is studiously ignored.) Meanwhile, Asa's slaves play out their own scenarios of parenthood and loss. Moll, a companion to Helen since both were 10, is married against her will. Her firstborn son, Davy, is her only consolation. When Davy and John set out for the frontier, motherly love compels Moll to take a suicidal risk. Though Smith's homespun prose conveys a sense of the period without undo artifice, this is more a diorama of archetypes than a fully-fleshed drama. A bleak, unsentimental but ultimately static evocation of early American lives.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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