In 1938, the fireworks factory in Fire Neck, Long Island, explodes, sending smoke and ash across the city. Nineteen-year-old Nancy Poole’s first concern is for her 12-year-old brother, Clayton, who takes advantage of the mayhem to slip out of school. Clayton and Nancy are orphaned, and live in the house on Salt Hay Road with their maternal family, the Scudders: Aunt Mavis, Uncle Roy, and their grandfather, Augustus Scudder.
When the factory goes up, Uncle Roy and Grandfather Scudder are at home; Aunt Mavis is working in Mr. George B. Washington’s kitchen. She has just scalded a goose when the explosion hits. A deeply religious woman, Mavis is certain Judgement Day has arrived. Nancy, searching for Clayton in Mr. Washington’s aviary, suspects no such thing when she finds visitor Mr. Robert Landgraf amid the birds instead of her brother. Mr. Washington, a powdered coffee baron, is not at home. The family reconvenes around the dinner table, Mr. Landgraf in tow.
Carin Clevidence’s first novel won’t knock you off your chair, or send you into the streets wildly waving the paperback at passerby. The House on Salt Hay Road is an understated novel, lacking the bells and whistles characterizing much today’s popular fiction but none the worse for it. There are no drawings, footnotes, or forays into experimental prose. In fact, the characters are often eminently predictable, particularly Nancy, who is very much a creature of her era; vain, shallow, and eager for male attention. Indeed, The House on Salt Hay Road is successful in its very quiet.
Set in the late ‘30s, the novel is a dispatch from the past, well before some of the world’s most expensive real estate made coastal Long Island a playground for the wealthy. It’s a time when an unmarried at 19-year-old girl nervously studies typing manuals while her aunt frowns over her racy riding breeches; a time when a 12-year-old boy can safely roam the lands surrounding his home; a place where cars haven’t quite established complete dominion over horses.
If writing is in the details, Clevidence has nailed them. Mavis, an expert cook and baker, prepares Mr. Washington molded chicken with celery and partridges larded with salt pork. During bouts of insomnia, she bakes molasses cakes, nut bread, and blueberry pies. Nancy’s hair is bobbed. In lieu of cosmetics, she pinches her cheeks to appear rosy. The notion of employment is a dim one, evidenced by her lackluster attempts to master Tips for Typists. Nancy wants what most girls of her era are supposed to want: marriage. Her initial encounters with Robert Landgraf will strike some readers as almost laughably chaste.
Clevidence is at her finest describing the land. The family lives on Great South Bay, and the water permeates their very existence, dictating the weather, the sand permanently ground into their floors, the bluefish and crab they eat for dinner. Much of the book is given to Clayton, who vastly prefers the natural world to school. He’s an expert fisherman, handler of boats, and amateur naturalist who loves nothing more than sketching the dead wildlife he encounters on his rambles in and around Fire Neck. When he lands a summer job scapping (that’s crab netting for us non-seafaring types) for seaman Theron Greaves, he’s overjoyed.
“Across the canal, red-winged blackbirds burbled in the reeds… Wordlessly, Theron showed Clayton how to take a chunk of eel, score it with a knife, then tie it onto a line with a clove hitch.”
“Out on the bay a white powerboat touched its reflection as it bounced along. The hull and its image met and parted, met and parted, cutting the water like a pair of shears.”
The family’s alliances are uneasy, largely due to Nancy, who remains loyal to her deceased mother, spurning Mavis’s attempts at affection. This is tolerated by Augustus, the aged patriarch, who is well aware of Nancy’s failings but adores her, nonetheless. Roy is content to stay out of trouble, but Clayton is torn between his beloved sister and the Scudders, who are loving if gruff. While Nancy longs to flee Fire Neck for the wider world, Clayton is deeply attached to the land, the bay, his friends and relatives.
Robert Landgraf’s appearance predictably sets things awry: a mere few months after their chance meeting, Robert and Nancy marry, returning to Boston, where Robert works at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Nancy is exhilarated by the prospect of matrimony and her imagined life in cosmopolitan Boston. She’s determined that Clayton to join her. But Clayton, like the rest of the family, is bewildered and displeased by Nancy’s sudden matrimony. Nor has he any wish to depart. His decision to stay with the Scudders is a wrenching one. Nancy, accustomed to getting her way, departs angrily.
The House on Salt Hay Road is not a page turner. Instead, the plot unfolds gradually, pushing the reader not to turn pages in a frantic effort to reach the end, but to slow down and watch the characters go about their business. Clevidence is rare in her willingness to curb narrative action, an unusual characteristic in contemporary fiction, where action-crammed plots can resemble the latest mega-movie. Here, the characters’ lives are the main event: deprived of his granddaughter’s company, Augustus Scudder takes to his bed, awaiting death. Mavis struggles to accept her failed marriage, fearing the reappearance of her estranged husband. Roy meanders from one business venture to the next, capable, genial, and completely disorganized. Clayton becomes a competent, clear-headed teenager whose life is lived mostly outdoors.
The Great Hurricane of 1938 serves as the novel’s crisis point. Pages are devoted to the incredible destruction the storm wrought, descriptions inevitably forcing recall of an equally horrific hurricane in 2005. The Scudder family is forever changed by the storm and the darkening shadow of war drawing across the world.
In the good old days, when publishing was a healthy, lucrative industry, The House on Salt Hay Road would have fallen in the “midlist”, a small, quiet novel shining a light into one family’s life while illuminating a disappearing era. The death of the midlist book is a source of mourning for serious readers and publishing alike, making The House on Salt Hay Road a heartening find amid “summer blockbusters” and “beach reads”. Much of its pleasure lies in the fact that it is neither.
Midlist or no, if we are to have a serious literature, we need books The House on Salt Hay Road.