A novelist's look at our national tragedy
Christopher Tilghman’s latest novel, a sequel to Mason’s Retreat, has the feel of a Greek tragedy, but it’s not, quite. The tragedy that afflicts the Mason/Bayly families reflects the original sin of America itself.
Before the Civil War, Ogle Mason, owner of Mason’s Retreat, a Maryland plantation, sold a portion of his slaves. The sale traumatized not only the slaves left behind, who were parted from family and friends, but Ogle’s daughter Ophelia, who goes through life with a darkness hanging over her. She marries an odd but gentle man who turns the plantation into a peach farm and treats his black employees and their families almost as equals. Ophelia and Wyatt Bayley—and their children Mary and Thomas—spend much of their lives trying to atone for the sin of Ogle Mason.
Mary and Thomas’ childhood is unusual, thanks to their father. Wyatt wants his daughter to be educated. He allows his son to be educated alongside a black boy named Randall, a son of one of the families he employs. Sometimes Wyatt seems more ambitious for Randall than he does for Thomas. Is this another way of making amends for his father-in-law? Then, there’s Beal, Randall’s sister, a fey child of not-quite-human beauty, and, for Tilghman, a catalyst for the hope and disruption that are motifs in this beautifully written novel.
Tilghman, the director of the University of Virginia’s MFA program, has long written about the people and places of the Chesapeake. Here, he plunges the reader into the daily lives of those who work and live on the Retreat. The plantation, with its fragrant orchards, then its sterile dairy barns, becomes as vivid as a person. Quietly and sadly, Tilghman uses this portrait of life on a Maryland farm to say much about what’s wrong and what’s right about America.