Esther the Black is eighteen years old and ready to leave the Compound, the collection of cottages on the North Shore of Long Island where she has lived all her life. But as July turns to August and her family braces for the height of Drowning Season, she realizes that she may not be able to escape her family’s legacy.
Her father will find a way through the locked sea-wall gate and try to drown himself in the harbor, her mother will be too hung over to leave her cottage for days at a time, and her grandmother will refuse to say a single kind word.
Esther the White left home when she was just a girl, fleeing her abusive parents across a frozen Russian river with a pocketful of stolen jewels. Life has taught her to be cold and unyielding, but in the heat of another fraught summer at the Compound, she feels her resolve melting away. Cohen, the landscaper and chauffeur responsible for keeping her son out of the water, looks at her with a desire she finds harder and harder to resist. Her granddaughter’s name may be an insult to tradition, but does that mean the poor girl should never feel her grandmother’s love or know her story?
Graceful, haunting, and wise, The Drowning Season “casts the spell of all great fairy tales. It takes daily life and transforms it into myth as we watch” (Chicago Sun-Times).
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About the Author
Alice Hoffman was born in New York City and grew up on Long Island. She wrote her first novel, Property Of, while studying creative writing at Stanford University, and since then has published more than thirty books for readers of all ages, including the recent New York Times bestsellers The Museum of Extraordinary Things and The Dovekeepers. Two of her novels, Practical Magic and Aquamarine, have been made into films, and Here on Earth was an Oprah’s Book Club choice. All told, Hoffman’s work has been published in more than twenty languages and one hundred foreign editions. She lives outside of Boston.
Date of Birth:March 16, 1952
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Adelphi University, 1973; M.A., Stanford University, 1974
Read an Excerpt
The Drowning Season
By Alice Hoffman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 Alice Hoffman
All rights reserved.
Once, when Esther the Black was eighteen, she sat on the porch of her grandmother's house and dragged her feet in the dust until her toes were coated and dark. She had lived within the walls that surrounded the Compound of houses owned by her grandparents all of her life, but she promised herself that this year would be different. Esther struck the head of a blue-tipped kitchen match along the railing; she lit a cigarette and tilted her denim cap back on her dark hair. Although she was the same age her grandmother was when the old woman gave birth to her first and only child, Phillip, Esther the Black looked young, she looked like any orphan scowling in the sun. The cap protected Esther's eyes, but the light was still white hot across her skin; it was the time of year they called Drowning Season, and the day would soon be too hot to sit outdoors; already the heat rose from the grass and the dust in maniac waves.
From where she sat, Esther the Black could see the harbor, and beyond that, the Sound. In the center of the group of houses was a large circular green, surrounded by feathery mimosa trees. And farther up on the porch, in a white wicker rocking chair, the girl's grandmother, Esther the White, dreamed in the sun, her long hair caught up with tiny silver pins.
Esther the Black refused to look at her grandmother; so she stared, instead, at the collection she had begun as a child which decorated her grandparents' porch and every other porch in the Compound. Sea urchin shells, green crabs, and blood sea stars rested in rows on the wooden railings, and Esther ran her foot through the dusty shadows of their skeletons. It was the first summer the girl had thought she would be free; she had finished school, she had planned to travel far from the Compound. But now, as the air closed in and the orange lilies grew so close they seemed to root between her toes, it might have been any summer of her life.
"If you sit on this porch any longer," Esther the White called to her granddaughter, "your muscles will freeze, your bones will be paralyzed, and you'll never be able to move again. That's what laziness does."
Esther the Black ignored her grandmother; she watched the lawn, where her father, Phillip, sat in a low wooden chair. Beyond the sea wall, the harbor was motionless.
"Of course you think I know nothing," Esther the White continued, as she rocked in her white wicker chair. "Of course you would rather contract the plague than listen to me."
Esther the Black scowled. All of the family was marked with a dislike for Esther the White, and that was how the girl had gotten her name. Phillip had named his daughter on a hot August day, with an ancient hostility and a smile. For although Esther the White and Mischa had severed any connection to Judaism, and had even changed their family name while living in France, Phillip was aware that children should only be named after the dead, never the living. He had had a slight interest in their ignored religion for a time, he had even tried to teach himself Hebrew, until his then current analyst had convinced him the act was regressive. Still, he knew enough to watch very carefully during the announcement of his newborn daughter's name, and he was sure he could see his mother's body suddenly tighten.
"I have to admit that I am ignoring you," Esther the Black told her grandmother. And what was the difference; she had ignored her for years. When Esther the Black's own mother Rose was too ill with hangovers, or the vapors, or sadness, Esther the White had taken charge of the girl's upbringing. And so, Esther the Black's childhood had been strict—though she rebelled. She had traded starched white blouses for schoolmates' T-shirts, she had ripped every ruffled dress, had even spilled soup on the silk scarves Esther the White tied around her neck; and when Esther the White ordered that the girl be driven to school in her grandfather's blood-colored Cadillac, Esther the Black still waited for the school bus, and she sneaked aboard like a pirate with a book bag.
"Naturally you're ignoring me." Esther the White nodded in the sun. "Otherwise you wouldn't be young and stupid."
For as long as she could remember, Esther the Black had disliked everything about her grandmother. The way she spoke, her slow, straight posture; even the way her long, pale hand reached for a silver salt shaker at the dinner table.
"If I were you," Esther the White continued, "I'd be on the beach, getting some exercise, feeling the cool water on my ankles."
The girl wanted to see her grandmother, who dressed in linen and silk, even on the hottest days, climbing over the sea wall, now that the gate was locked for Drowning Season.
"When I was a girl, I was foolish, although not as stupid as you," Esther the White said.
Esther the Black tried to imagine her grandmother as a foolish girl, but she could not; she could only imagine what she had always known: strict orders through pale, wrinkled lips. Over the years Esther the Black's feeling had grown; it had blossomed from distaste to resentment; and finally, like a clear white flower, motionless in the heat, Esther the Black felt herself hating the woman who rocked so slowly behind her that the rocking chair scraped like claws on the wooden porch boards.
"You were never foolish," Esther the Black said.
"No." Esther the White shrugged. "I guess not," she said.
And, although Esther the White was never foolish, she had a talent for making others feel that way. Esther the Black could not help but remember the day when she was only eleven and had slipped onto the school bus for the last time. When the bus passed in front of the high iron Compound gate, she had gone to the center of the bus, sitting among local children she knew from class and recess, but whom she never talked to outside of school and whom she certainly never invited home.
"Look who's on the bus," an older girl said. "The nigger."
"I don't know what she's talking about," Esther the Black confessed to the kindergartner who shared her seat.
"Yes you do," the girl continued. "I heard your grandmother call you Esther the Black last weekend in St. Fredrics. I know that they lock you in a closet at home, so that nobody will know about you."
Esther the Black had no idea what a nigger might be, but some of the other children were now staring at her, and the kindergartner at her side was about to cry, tears welled up in his eyes.
"I'm Hawaiian," Esther the Black said quickly.
"Hah," the older girl said. "Let's hear you speak Hawaiian, big shot."
Esther the Black kept her mouth shut. For some time she had felt there was something different about her, something wrong. Her grandmother always lowered her voice when she called the girl by name, and it was always Esther the Black, never just Esther. And then, in the school bus, watched carefully by the other students, Esther wondered if Black meant something more than the color of her hair, she wondered if it might be better to have hair like her grandmother's, hair long as white chiffon.
But, before anyone could call her more names, before Esther could cry, the school bus was cut off at the corner of Main Street. The Cadillac, driven by the hired man, Cohen, had swerved in front of the bus, and Esther the Black's grandmother was pounding on the glass doors with rings on all of her fingers. The bus driver had no choice; who wouldn't open a door for Esther the White when she tossed a blue silk scarf over her shoulder and stared so coldly. And when she walked down the aisle, with posture as straight as wire, Esther the White washed silence over every grade-school child.
"Let's go," she said to Esther the Black. "The car is waiting."
Esther the Black looked out the window; she pretended not to know this woman; next to her the kindergartner had begun to sniffle.
"Did you hear me?" Esther the White said. "When I was a child I would have given anything to be driven to school in a beautiful car, rather than this." She sniffed as she looked around the bus; chewing gum stuck to the soles of her Italian shoes, peanut butter was in the air.
Esther the Black's tormentor, a fifth-grader, who wore blue plastic rimmed eyeglasses, pulled on Esther the White's silk sleeve. Esther the White turned as if she smelled something horrible, something bad.
"Is she Hawaiian?" the girl asked, pointing a finger at Esther the Black.
"It's rude to point," Esther the White told the tormentor.
"Is she?" the fifth-grader asked.
Esther the Black looked up at her grandmother. Not one muscle in the girl's face moved, not a ruffle on her blouse. Esther the White did not even look at her granddaughter, whose skin was so summer dark, whose eyes were so huge that she might have been any race, a child of anyone.
"No," Esther the White said, turning to walk out of the school bus, and signaling Esther the Black to follow. "She is not Hawaiian, but she certainly is a fool."
So, Esther the Black, the liar, the non-Hawaiian, followed her grandmother off the school bus. She did not even turn when someone poked her in the ribs. That day she would have done anything to have her grandmother as an ally, to have her story backed up, to have a smile. But Esther the Black had none of those things as she followed her grandmother off the bus; and once they were inside the Cadillac, and Cohen was speeding toward the elementary school in St. Fredrics, Esther the White lit a filter-tipped cigarette and said, "They're only envious because you ride to school in such a beautiful car. I hope you know that."
But Esther the Black knew nothing of the sort. They weren't envious; they hated her because she was embarrassed to visit them, to have Cohen waiting for her outside a tract house, leaning on the clean Cadillac and looking at his nails. They hated her because she wasn't even Hawaiian as an excuse. But Esther the Black agreed, she nodded her head yes, because her grandmother was staring at her with large, pale eyes, because her mother, Rose, had made her swear not to anger the old woman because the family depended on her, on her houses, and her wealth.
And when they pulled up to the schoolhouse, miles ahead of the bus, Esther the White handed her granddaughter a tortoiseshell comb. "You should be more embarrassed over your hair than this car," she said. "Your hair is unmanageable, like a wild dog's."
Esther the Black ran the comb through her short hair, but her hands were shaking; and try as she might, she could never weave her hair into long, fine chiffon.
As Esther the Black scowled, and imagined one of her few childhood memories, Esther the White pointed at her with a long, accusing finger.
"I had to work too hard," Esther the White was saying. "I didn't have time to be foolish."
Esther the Black wondered what sort of work her grandmother might have ever done; her hands were as smooth as ice, even now, she only cooked dinner once a week, and she never cleaned up afterward. Her only activity which might be considered work was to drive into Manhattan once a month and consult the family's accountant, Solomon Rath, and that was at an air-conditioned office on Madison Avenue, where Rath's secretary served the old woman black Russian tea and cakes.
Esther the Black had begun to think quite a lot about work since her graduation from high school. If she wanted escape she would have to find a job, and yet she was qualified to do nothing but sit in the back seat of the rusty Cadillac and tell Cohen which way to turn. If she was not careful, if she was not quick, she would find herself married to the accountant's son, Ira Rath. Esther stubbed out her cigarette in the dust. Ira Rath was now at college in Vermont, but he had been expected to become Esther's husband since their first introduction. The family had chosen him for her in the summer when she was twelve.
"It will please your grandmother," Rose had told Esther. "And that's important. His family is good, and we'll need an accountant in our family when the old woman dies. Phillip doesn't know the difference between a stock and a bond."
So, that summer, before Esther the Black even knew what marriage was, there was a dinner party to introduce the two. Silk scarves moved like snakes, like air, as Rose offered canapés of sour cream and chicken to the elder Raths. "What do you think of him?" she whispered to Esther the Black.
Esther the Black swept three canapés from the plate. "I hate him," she said.
"Please," Rose had said, peering across the room at her mother-in-law, Esther the White. "Our future depends on this liaison. Do you want to be disowned? Do you want your father to lose control of his inheritance and be sent to Rockland or Pilgrim State?"
Esther the Black just swung her legs beneath a scratchy crinoline, and was silent as her grandfather Mischa and Solomon Rath discussed the children's engagement. Across the canapés, Ira, who was not yet fourteen, winked.
There was no doubt now, six years later, Esther the Black had not been trained to be anything but a wife. She needed a job and a means of escape, and she winced when Esther the White called from her rocking chair, "Someday you may learn to take my advice."
Esther the Black shaded her eyes and stared upward; a helicopter, which flew in tourists from New York City to St. Fredrics, circled above the Compound. Esther the Black's father, Phillip, rose from his lawn chair and waved a hand at the sky.
"Look at him," Esther the Black smiled as her father greeted the helicopter, and she watched him as she would some darling child.
"Just look at him?" Esther the White said. "We have to do more than that. We have to watch him."
When the helicopter had flown by them, Esther the Black stood on the porch stairs, and she strained to see the green stone beach which had been littered with scales, with fish heads, with fins. The poachers, a local band of fishermen who had sold Mischa the land for the Compound twenty years before when he had first planned to build the most luxurious housing development in the state, had been into the run of bluefish. The fishermen had never left the harbor, even though Mischa had hired Cohen to guard the beach. Now, Esther the Black watched from the porch as Cohen walked slowly along the stones; he sat on the last remaining dock, one the family still used occasionally, and he stared at the traces left behind by the poachers. He moved his foot in a watery circle; his foot disappeared into the water, then a leg—finally, Esther the Black could no longer see him; he had disappeared into the harbor.
And as he disappeared, Esther the Black's great aunt, Lisa, walked across the green from her large cottage and leaned on the porch railing. "That's right," she said to no one in particular in a thick Viennese accent Esther the White despised. "You go swimming, Cohen, and then you tell everyone you are a gardener who is planting seaweed. If my sweetest husband could see this, Cohen would be fired in a minute."
Esther the White raised her eyebrows. It was her husband, Mischa, and not Lisa's, who paid Cohen's salary. "When exactly was the last time you paid for anything?" she asked her sister-in-law.
Lisa hissed, but then was silent; true, she had been a nonpaying guest at the Compound for years, but she was the wife of Mischa's brother. And a brother who had suffered plenty. "I'm just making a comment," she told Esther the White.
Esther the Black ignored both women; she strained to see Cohen; his arms were breaking through the calm water. And although he was a strong swimmer—and had taught Esther the Black the backstroke and the butterfly—he was getting to be an old man, and it was summer; now even the fishermen called summer the Drowning Season. They swore that Mischa and his family had brought Drowning Season with them to the Compound, and now even the most experienced swimmer, the oldest fisherman, was in danger of drowning on the calmest days. Not that the superstition stopped their poaching. They still rowed boats far into the Sound, they still carried nets, and transistor radios, and knives; a curse was a curse, but they had to live.
Excerpted from The Drowning Season by Alice Hoffman. Copyright © 1979 Alice Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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