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Three generations struggle to recover

The stain of slavery is difficult to remove

By Howard Owen

The Free Lance-Star

IF “The Right-Hand Shore” isn’t the Great American Novel,” surely it on the short list for the Great Maryland Novel.

Referencing 1850s Maryland, the narrator tells us, “In the North, there was one principle, one war, one story; in the South, one cause, one defense, one history; but in the borders, in the middle ground, there were as many principles and wars and histories as there were human beings to hold them, to survive them, to preserve them.”

Christopher Tilghman returns to this conflicted region, specifically to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the setting for his highly acclaimed “Mason’s Retreat,” for a prequel of sorts.  This finely crafted novel, however, stands well on its own. Set on and around the Mason estate, the Retreat, from before the Civil War until 1920, it takes us through three generations of a family that tries to remove the stain of bondage from a land that seems to resist all   efforts at whitewashing.

In 1857, Ogle S. Mason sells the bulk of his slaves away, tearing apart many families

in the process. It is a purely mercenary move. He can foresee the fast-approaching storm of freedom, “so as he figured it, thirty cents on the dollar was a windfall to him.”

This diaspora for the sake of the bottom line so fills his daughter with shame that she tries to divorce herself from the Retreat.  But she marries a man, Wyatt Bayly, who becomes convinced that he can redeem the land through the sweetness of peaches. His efforts and his doomed attempt to help an African–American boy achieve his potential are met with such disaster as to prosecute the case that the land itself is cursed.

Mary Bayly, Ogle Mason’s granddaughter, makes another effort at redemption, this time by starting a dairy, with milk cows grazing over the ruins of the luckless peach orchard.

The book opens in 1920, with a dying Mary passing the Retreat on to a distant cousin. She is amused that he thinks it is a blessing.

Tilghman, director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Virginia, has boiled this epic of family,  church, race, love and destiny into 355 pages, and it unfolds and amazes right up to the end. It is a compliment to his skill that a lesser writer would have needed 800 pages to tell it less well.

Anyone who enjoyed “Mason’s Retreat” will surely find enjoyment in this gripping and beautifully written work.

Howard Owen is business editor at The Free Lance–Star and author of nine published novels. His 10th, “Oregon Hill,” comes out in July.


By Christopher Tilghman

(F,S&G, $27, 344 pp.)


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