A Providence Journal Best Book of the Year
A Seattle Times Best Book of the Year
John Casey follows up his National Book Award-winning novel Spartina with an extraordinary return to the marshes of Rhode Island’s South County.
Elsie Buttrick, the prodigal daughter of Sawtooth Point, has just given birth to Rose, the child conceived during her passionate affair with Dick Pierce. At first she is wary of the discomfort her presence poses to Dick’s wife, May, and other inhabitants of their gossipy, insular community. But as Rose slowly becomes the unofficially adopted daughter and little sister of half the town, she magnetically steers everyone in her orbit toward unexpected—and unbreakable—relationships.
About the Author
John Casey was born in 1939 in Worcester, Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard College, Harvard Law School, and the University of Iowa. His novel Spartina won the National Book Award in 1989. He lives with his wife in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he is a professor of English literature at the University of Virginia.
Read an Excerpt
By John Casey
VintageCopyright © 2011 John Casey
All right reserved.
May sat on the first row of the bleachers, watching the boys warm up. Tom was the second-string catcher, might get in if their team got ahead by a lot. He was good behind the plate-all that practice catching for Charlie in the backyard-but he couldn't hit as well as the first-string catcher. At least Charlie and Tom got to play on a team this year. Before Dick got his boat built he'd kept them busy during the summer doing chores. No games. And while Eddie Wormsley was fixing the house, they'd helped with that. Now there was some pleasure in their lives. Dick still expected them to work at something that brought in some money, but since he was at sea more than half the time, Charlie set his own schedule. He used the work skiff the same way Dick used to-had his tongs, pots, hand lines. Tom at fourteen was an off-the-books boy at the boatyard, but they didn't keep him half as busy as Dick used to. No question about it, the boys were better off. If you just counted material things, so was she. She took some comfort from the boys.
Across the bright green grass she saw Miss Perry walking with her cane. The woman beside her was holding a parasol over Miss Perry's head. May didn't recognize Elsie Buttrick at first because she was wearing a white dress and looked a little plump. May's memory of Elsie was of her in a tailored green uniform or in a swimsuit.
Miss Perry and Elsie moved very slowly. Part of May's mind was piecing together how and why they were here. A more powerful feeling rose through her, making her back and arms rigid. The feeling was nonsense but so strong that she couldn't stop it-she felt that she was the one who'd done something wrong. And everyone was about to see it.
Miss Perry stopped to switch her cane to her other side. Elsie switched the parasol from one hand to the other and moved around Miss Perry. Elsie saw May and opened her free hand-perhaps to show she couldn't help being there. Then she looked down. May was released from her upside-down feeling. She looked to see if Charlie or Tom had noticed Miss Perry. No. She was alone for more of Miss Perry's and Elsie's slow progress. She herself was throwing off thoughts faster than she could gather them back in. She was trying to gather them so that she would leave no part of herself outside her. But there was another: a white dress. Had that woman worn that white dress when she was with Dick? Or was it to pretend she was Miss Perry's nurse?
May's thoughts were like a dog's bristling and barking at something coming toward the front yard where it was chained up short.
She'd caught a glimpse of Elsie Buttrick one summer at a clambake on Sawtooth Island, the local gentry walking around in next to nothing while Dick and the boys were fixing the clambake. May didn't stay. Something she hadn't remembered till now: Dick had said afterward that he thought Charlie had a crush on Elsie Buttrick. That was an idea that was so barbed and tangled that she pulled it inside her and covered it. And sat still.
Miss Perry and Elsie arrived. May got up, shook hands with Miss Perry, nodded toward Elsie. Miss Perry said, "I told Charlie that I doubted that I would be able to go fishing this year, but that I hoped he and Tom would come for lunch. He then very nicely asked me to the baseball game." May concentrated on the slow rise and fall of Miss Perry's voice. Miss Perry's eyes widened as if with surprise behind her eyeglasses. She said, "And here I am." Miss Perry put both hands on the crook of her cane and added, "I'm afraid I dragooned Elsie into driving me." She put the tip of her cane behind the bench and began to sit down. Elsie got behind her, turned her, and lowered her by her elbows.
May felt calmed by Miss Perry's stately sentences and by the way her presence lessened the Buttrick girl, maybe even contained her. Then May blamed herself for not thinking of Miss Perry's effort in coming out to the game, for not being concerned about how Miss Perry had aged in the last year. May said, "The boys'll be glad you're here. Charlie's going to pitch. We might get to see Tom a little later. Baseball's the first thing they've done on their own, if you see what I mean."
Miss Perry turned to her. "I do indeed. Dick is admirably industrious, but I imagine he may have been demanding in his single-mindedness. Now that he's achieved his own boat, however, one might hope that he will become a bit more like Captain Teixeira. Perhaps not immediately, of course." Miss Perry gave a little cough, perhaps a laugh.
Elsie looked straight ahead during Miss Perry's speech.
Miss Perry said, "I don't intend that remark as a criticism of Dick but simply as a looking forward to spring after a hard winter."
The game began. May hadn't seen a ball game for years-the last one probably a Red Sox game on someone's TV. She was surprised by a terrible tenderness for these teenagers assuming the gestures of grown men: the batter knocking the bat against his spikes and then tapping it on home plate. The infielders crouching, pounding their fists in their mitts. And Charlie on the mound staring intently at the catcher, shaking off a sign with a single shake of his head-the most grown-up gesture she'd ever seen him make.
And the chatter. Their voices had all changed but were still not men's voices. Still thin and sometimes sweet tenors even though they were trying to be menacing or scornful. "No hitter, no hitter, easy out, easy out." "Whaddya say, whaddya say, Charlie boy, right by him, right down the old alley."
High-school boys on a Saturday morning yearning to be men. In their green hearts, wanting to be like Dick-strong, secretive, hard. She'd seen moving pictures of a crew at sea sorting fish dumped on the deck out of the cod end, using their gloved hands or gaffs to throw the good fish into the hold, using their boots to kick the trash fish off the stern.
These boys, the green field, the summer clouds in the blue sky, poured into her eyes too brightly.
She tried to think of something sensible to say to Miss Perry. Miss Perry was staring intently at Charlie on the pitcher's mound, and May felt a little better.
Miss Perry had felt Elsie's restlessness as they drove to the ball field-at first Miss Perry thought it was Elsie's thinking about other things she ought to be doing. Miss Perry had a regular driver on weekdays and hadn't asked a favor of Elsie for months, and Elsie had seemed pleasantly agreeable when Miss Perry asked in a general way if Elsie could spare a few hours of her Saturday morning. But as they walked toward the seats Miss Perry felt Elsie's nerves harden quite suddenly. And then May seemed withdrawn, too, and Miss Perry wondered, could Elsie in the course of her duties as warden have caught Dick when he was up to something with that friend of his, Mr. Wormsley? Or could May resent the way Elsie's brother-in-law had taken over Sawtooth Point and was making into an offensively private domain what had once been perfectly nice fields belonging to Dick's great-uncle Arthur? Which would have been Dick's, had Arthur Pierce not had a run of bad luck?. . . But surely May would know-Dick certainly did-that of all that family, Elsie was the one who'd come to care wholeheartedly for the place and the people.
Perhaps this not knowing was simply another effect of age. Miss Perry had once known everything-almost everything-that went on in South County. Of course, she used to see Captain Teixeira more frequently when Everett Hazard was still alive. Among the three of them, they could register incidents from Wickford to Westerly. Now there were a great many details that escaped her. It wasn't just that Everett Hazard was dead; her own attention floated outward-she could think of no other way of putting it-floated outward beyond the things she once knew. It was not an altogether unpleasant sensation. She found herself staring at things, simultaneously puzzled by how particular a leaf was and how unbordered and vague she herself was becoming. On a good day, that is. She had felt that today was to be a good day. She had been very pleased by Charlie's telephone call. He was shy at first but soon warmed. And most pleasant of all, he seemed sure of her affection for him. That was the point of arranging to be here. She had breakfasted well and cleaned her eyeglasses, and there Charlie was in the middle of the baseball field, looking quite splendid.
Baseball was as familiar to her as a shadow play. She knew there were long periods of apparently unproductive pitching and catching and then suddenly a single player might hit the ball and confront another single player of the array of players spread out on the field in an abruptly terrifying instant. She thought this game gave a nervous edge to the otherwise tranquil and consoling line "They also serve who only stand and wait."
She was glad that Charlie had a repetitively active part. For a while she enjoyed watching him throw the baseball again and again, starting with a single elaborately slow step and then a quick whirl. Her mind wandered. The bakery had delivered the cake for Charlie and Tom, but had she put it in the refrigerator? Ought she have done so? She adjusted her eyeglasses and found herself admiring the catcher bravely crouched close behind the bat. She remembered a poem by Marianne Moore that mentioned the attractive curve of a catcher's haunches. Indeed. And somehow this was made more noticeable by the mask that covered his face, reminding her of a gladiator.
The batter swung and the catcher threw off his mask and ran directly toward her, his face tilted up. When he was almost at arm's length from her he reached up with both hands. She heard a distinct thwock, but she couldn't see anything but Elsie's white dress. Then she saw Elsie and the catcher tipping sideways until they were on the ground at her feet. The catcher raised his glove with the ball in it, apparently to show the umpire, although the gesture also elicited applause from the audience and cheers from his teammates. The catcher got to his feet, asked Elsie if she was all right, then hauled her to her feet with one hand. Elsie smiled at the boy. Miss Perry was reminded of Elsie's smile as a girl. Never what anyone would call a sweet child, she would sometimes be surprised into a brief energetic smile. A charming paradox-Elsie's eyes would almost shut, but her face opened. As it did now. How very nice, how very much like pleasure.
May didn't see the ball, but when the catcher got close to them the tilt of his body began to scare her. He shuffled nearer and nearer, then turned his back. May felt the bench jounce as Elsie got up. Elsie stood in front of Miss Perry with one hand in the air and the other on the catcher's back. As he caught the ball he began to fall. May felt the bench move again as Elsie braced a foot on it and pushed against the boy. Elsie and he sank sideways and then lay together on the ground. For an instant May saw Elsie as shameless-clutching him, pressing her hips and breasts against him. Then May was ashamed.
She saw Charlie standing just beyond Elsie and the catcher. He closed his mouth and his face settled. Elsie was on her feet, smoothing her dress.
The catcher jogged toward the umpire, who was listening stolidly to the coach of the other team. Charlie took a step closer to Elsie. Elsie waved one hand and said, "Fine. We're all fine."
Charlie said, "Ma, maybe you and Miss Perry ought to move back a couple of rows."
May thought there was no end to Elsie Buttrick.
The people in the row behind them made room. May and Elsie stood Miss Perry up, turned her around, and guided her up to the next level.
When Dick got home Charlie would tell him about the ball game, would tell him Elsie Buttrick had saved Miss Perry from being landed on by the catcher. May didn't want to be there to see Dick's careful face.
May was pleased when Miss Perry said, "Really, Elsie. All this fuss?"
Miss Perry thought the game had gone on quite long enough. She thought Charlie himself looked as if pitching was becoming tiresome. He took several deep breaths and threw the ball. There was a sound as sharp as when the catcher caught the ball in front of her, but more resonant. "Blow, bugle, blow-set the wild echoes flying." Tennyson? She looked up and saw the ball suspended against the blue sky. She said "Ah!" as it began to move. She was surprised that she could see it so clearly, that she felt so light and connected to that single speck, as though she herself were flying.
She was startled to find that she was standing, Elsie's arm around her waist. She lost sight of the ball against a cloud, then saw it fall out of the cloud. A faraway player leaned against a fence and watched the ball land. Two little boys beyond the fence began to run toward it. The first time it landed it skipped quite high, as though it might fly again. Then it bounced gently. Miss Perry was glad to see this-one of the boys caught it and the two of them ran off with it.
She sat down again with Elsie's help. It had been as thrilling as when she'd surprised a stag in her garden and he'd bolted with a snort that froze her in place. Then he leapt over the high stone wall, as if lifted by a wave. How much invisible energy there was in this world- how amazing to feel it press through her still.
She applauded. Elsie touched her arm and asked her if she would like a glass of lemonade. She said, "Not now, Elsie."
May said, "Poor Charlie," and Miss Perry knew-had only temporarily not known-that this splendid moment was unfortunate for Charlie. In fact, after he watched two of the opposing players trot around the bases, there was a gathering around him and a new pitcher replaced him. There was a smattering of applause as he left the field.
Excerpted from Compass Rose by John Casey Copyright © 2011 by John Casey. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc.
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Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Compass Rose, National Book Award winner John Casey’s resonant, masterful novel about a girl with three mothers and the world they inhabit.
1. Have you read Spartina? How did your knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of the characters affect your reading experience?
2. A compass rose is the circular design on a nautical chart, with directional points resembling the petals of a flower. What is the metaphor of the title? In what ways is Rose like a compass?
3. Miss Perry compares the end of her life to the last days of Rome (page 68). Where else might that metaphor apply?
4. Which characters care the most about class distinctions? How does that enhance or detract from their lives?
5. Elsie seems to relish being an observer. What does that say about her as a character? Where does it lead her?
6. On page 105, Johnny says, “Shame is a group thing. When a group mistrusts the outside, they have to trust the inside.” Where else does this play out in the story? Are there characters who should feel shame but don’t?
7. Reread Dick’s monologue on pages 110–111. What message is he sending to his sons? How do they use the insights he’s sharing?
8. On page 136, Miss Perry says, “It is disconcerting that someone I don’t much care for, I mean Phoebe Fitzgerald, has taken a wider interest in everyday life than Jack has.” What is she talking about? Compare and contrast the ways in which Phoebe and Jack interact with the other characters.
9. Discuss the triangles in the novel: Rose, Elsie, Mary; Rose, Elsie, May; Elsie, May, Dick. How do the characters benefit from these relationships?
10. On page 177, Phoebe quotes Deirdre: “It was a metaphor for how to deal with anything—you just start taking care of little things and pretty soon you’re feeling better about everything.” Which characters in the novel behave this way? How does it affect the others?
11. What is the significance, both metaphorical and to the characters, of the loss of Spartina?
12. On page 289, Mary talks about heroism and what men and women perceive as heroic. Which characters do you consider to be heroic, and why?
13. Discuss the passage on pages 313–316 in which Elsie watches a snake raid a bluebirds’ nest. What is its significance?
14. “It wasn’t fair that men got the verbs and she ended up with adjectives” thinks Elsie (page 333). What does she mean by this? Are there women in the novel who “get the verbs”?
15. Rose is a natural-born singer, while Elsie has a tin ear. What does this signify about their relationship?
16. Which of her three mother figures is most influential for Rose: Elsie, Mary, or May?
17. Discuss Rose’s relationship with Dick. Do you think he regrets that she was born?
18. Why does Elsie seek out Dick for a sexual encounter after so many years?
19. Miss Perry once said to Elsie, “Do we stand outside of nature, or do we stand inside it? Is nature everything but us? Or is it simply everything?” (page 384). What is the role of nature in the novel? How does Casey use nature as a metaphor?
20. The last line of the novel is “Here we are. We live in South County.” Why is this such an important notion? What does it mean to live there?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Compass Rose is a novel about a small town in Rhode Island and centers around Rose. Rose is the daughter of Elsie, a free-spirited ranger, and Dick, a married and well respected local fisherman. Both are deeply entrenched in South County with ties binding them tightly on all sides. When Dick's wife unexpectedly decides to make Rose a part of her life, Rose quickly becomes the darling of their circle and the center around which everyone orbits.Compass Rose is a quiet, contemplative character study of a book. Its all about the choices the women have and the choices they make to love and grow and to be at peace with their lives. I did like the characters and often thought Casey had hit the mark on their thoughts and feelings. I haven't read Spartina, so I can't make the obvious comparisons. I do wish more had happened in Compass Rose, in the end it didn't really feel like much had occurred. It seemed as if the book started in the middle of the story and then ended in the middle too. Nothing was really resolved and it felt more like a 356 page short story than a novel. Still, nice writing and very well drawn characters make me not sorry that I read the book. I am very tempted now to pick up Spartina.
Interesting study of personalities in a small New England town. Sequel to Spartina. The people are very well drawn, but in the end not as powerful as Spartina for me.
Compass Rose is a novel about a small town in Rhode Island and centers around Rose. Rose is the daughter of Elsie, a free-spirited ranger, and Dick, a married and well respected local fisherman. Both are deeply entrenched in South County with ties binding them tightly on all sides. When Dick's wife unexpectedly decides to make Rose a part of her life, Rose quickly becomes the darling of their circle and the center around which everyone orbits. Compass Rose is a quiet, contemplative character study of a book. Its all about the choices the women have and the choices they make to love and grow and to be at peace with their lives. I did like the characters and often thought Casey had hit the mark on their thoughts and feelings. I haven't read Spartina, so I can't make the obvious comparisons. I do wish more had happened in Compass Rose, in the end it didn't really feel like much had occurred. It seemed as if the book started in the middle of the story and then ended in the middle too. Nothing was really resolved and it felt more like a 356 page short story than a novel. Still, nice writing and very well drawn characters make me not sorry that I read the book. I am very tempted now to pick up Spartina.
My eyes watered and my throat got tight as I read the last few pages. Mostly because I don't often get to read so powerful a novel. Partly because it might be the last novel I'll ever read by this amazing man, John Casey. Not because I expect to die before he finishes another, but because I imagine we both will, so slowly and painstakingly does he write. Exquisitely wrought fiction for which the reader can only be deeply grateful. Most novels, even including some literary novels, are like a Breugel painting--large emotions broadly depicted. Compass Rose is like a Morandi still life--subtle, exquisite, the nuanced rendering of human emotion in all of us, just all too seldom focused on. This novel is not about great events, nor about great people. What happens in this novel is not unlike what happens to all of us . . . I almost said "to the least of us," except that Casey shows that none of us are least. What is felt in this novel is what we all feel in the course of our ordinary lives, but in an instant it's gone, never recorded but long remembered, albeit inarticulately. John Casey's fiction is like a portrait by a painter--precise, detailed, showing rather than telling, providing the emotional records we can't keep for ourselves. John Casey's fiction is exhilarating, not because he tells magnificent stories, but because he magnifies the great beauty of ordinary people so we, at last, can see it, and thereby see ourselves. John Casey practices the very highest form of art. Compass Rose etches the richly felt lives of three ordinary women, just as Spartina did for one ordinary fisherman, with whom those three women were directly or indirectly involved. It is often mentioned that Compass Rose is a sequel to Spartina, but could be read independently. What ought to be said is that Compass Rose is a monumental novel, and that later reading Spartina would illuminate it but could hardly eclipse it--Compass Rose is THAT good!
In Sawtooth Point, Rhode Island, Game Warden Elsie Buttrick gives birth to Rose. Elsie loves Rose's father her neighbor, fisherman Dick Pierce, but cannot marry him as he already has a wife May and two children. Although much of the small town condemns Elsie for having a child out of wedlock, she holds her head up high while raising her daughter as a single mom. May on the other hand feels publically humiliated by her husband's betrayal. Over the next decade and a half outgoing and optimistic Rose wins over all of those who scorned her mother; Even May loves the precocious girl. As Elsie and Dick stay attached through lust that some might say is love; a depressed May turns to her sons and Rose while dedicating her life to making their small part of the Sawtooth Point human ecosystem that they reside in better. This is a direct sequel, though it can stand alone, to the award winning Spartina. The story line is obviously character driven mostly by the three females pierced together by the man in their lives. Readers will relish the return to the Narragansett Bay estuary to visit the extended family of Dick Pierce although no one appears to be punished for their excesses; instead even Peirce seems rewarded due to sunshine Rose, a teen Mary Poppins. Harriet Klausner
I loved Spartina. I slogged through this book, forcing myself to finish it. I found the writing rambling and awkward and the plot uninteresting.