Every good book should elicit a list in its reader’s mind: places to visit, unusual ways of viewing a scenario, questions about a new profession - just to name just a few. My own list increases every time I read a book that grabs me: get a yellow lab, book a trip to India…have an affair (just kidding – even reading about affairs can be work). Diving into a story wakes up the ever-growing catalog of personal discovery.
This happened with Alice Hoffman’s Blackbird House. My life-list went wild.
I was late in reading this novel, a mystical compilation of tales connecting the many lives and 300-year-long history of one house – Blackbird House – whose fictional location is coastal lower Cape Cod. Perhaps as a Cape Codder, I balk at reading stories written about my hometown. The book sat unopened in a pile on my nightstand for two years. I grabbed it, along with my phone charger, as I was leaving for a trip to D.C. It took three pages in terminal B, gate 25, for me to wonder how I could have waited so long to dive in.
Alice Hoffman’s writing is flowery and detailed – a style I say I don’t love until I read it done well. Descriptions depicting the smell of seaweed in the marshland become available for your nose to explore. Low-tide is more physical than visual. And yet, somehow raging storms are left to the reader’s imagination in a way that enhances the horror of “lost at sea.” Blood on a woman’s thigh, the shaved head of a holocaust survivor, the simplicity of being so crazed by grief as to set everything you own on fire, are scenes laid out with magical prose-like skill. Hoffman allows the reader time to catch up to what they are experiencing while they read. She doesn’t rush the scene.
The overriding theme is loss – and I mean a lot of it. Children, husbands, mothers, even animals, fall victim to the ravages of illness, accident, injustice, and the sea. Why then did I feel so inspired after finishing this chapter-by-chapter slice of suffering? Because with every loss came the triumph of the human spirit. Hoffman doesn’t wrap it up with a pretty bow. She makes it real. Her characters survive with grit, persistence, the passage of time, and occasionally, some pretty-twisted mental and physical hang-ups. But they are survivors and their survival left its mark on me.
The number one item Blackbird House added to my life-list was to stop procrastinating and research my own Cape Cod property (which I’ve owned for twenty years). I returned from D.C. and began immediately. It turns out that not only am I sitting on the Captain James H. Hallett Homestead, est 1869, but that Captain Hallett died tragically in a warehouse accident, leaving behind a wife and two children. How’s that for poetic justice?