The Story of Land and Sea follows three generations of a Revolutionary-era family struggling with life and death, freedom and slavery as they make a life in a small coastal town in North Carolina. Ten-year-old Tabitha is enthralled by her father’s stories of the sea and of his elopement aboard ship with her mother, Helen, whom she never knew. John gave up the sea when Tabitha was born and Helen died, returning to it only when he feels his last hope lies in the healing salt air.

Helen was raised by her own widowed father, Asa, who taught the girl to run their plantation. He bought her a servant girl, Moll, and the two girls grew up as close to friends as a master and her slave can be. But when Helen met John, the pirate-turned-Continental soldier, and fell in love, Asa watched her restraint melt away. Moll, on the other hand, is married against her will to a virtual stranger, but finds solace in her first son, Davy, whom she swears to protect from the hardships of the world.

Though John and Asa share the same losses, they find themselves continuously at odds, each wanting the other to forgive him for unspoken sins. John, whose truest happiness in life was borne on the waves, leaves the sea behind to deal with his grief. Asa, who has resented the sea since it returned to him a daughter who would die soon after, restores a small boat and teaches himself to row, seeking the solace of the salt water that Helen had found years before.

Still only in her 20s, New -Orleans-based Smith received a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before earning her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminar. 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.


This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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