“Green Grass,” by Frances Rose; Double J Press, Berlin, Massachusetts, 2021; 130 pages, paperback, $6.99.

If you weren’t really thinking about it, you might find it surprising that a writer who’s long been living in Eastport, Maine, far from the madding mayhem of, say, Minneapolis, Louisville, Kentucky, or Ferguson, Missouri, would be writing a book about Black people in New York. You might think racism and its dark, tangled history wouldn’t be on the top of a White writer’s list of subject matter, there in the backdrop of gorgeous Cobscook Bay, innocent, other than through media reports, of racial trouble.

Of course, you’d be wrong about that. Just a couple of years ago Eastport city government was rattled by the questionable firing of its Black police chief who subsequently found a job up the road with the police department at the Passamaquoddy tribe’s Pleasant Point reservation. And if the word “reservation” doesn’t tell you something about race relations in Maine, I’m not sure what would.

Anyway, the recently published short novel “Green Grass,” by longtime Eastport resident Frances Rose, tells a story of sex-trafficking and the racism that intensifies its poison. The narrative is neatly framed as a series of episodic recollections by Anna, who is looking back several decades to events in her childhood and young adulthood in upstate New York in the early 20th century.

She turns out to be the light-skinned daughter of a Black family outside Buffalo. Her father, excruciatingly bitter over the mounting intensity of violence perpetrated on him, his family and his people since the Civil War, resents Anna’s complexion and its possible origin. He uses a horrific incident — all too familiar to Black Americans — of brutality as an excuse to ship Anna off to her uncle in Hudson, New York. There, she and other young teenage girls are sold to sex-traffickers. The virgins among them are referred to clandestinely as “green grass.”

Meanwhile Phil Beekman, a journalist whose wife and daughters have died in the flu epidemic of 1918, makes his self-medicated way to Hudson, where he crosses paths with Anna. Another journalist, a brassy, sharp-tongued lesbian named Lily, later descends on Hudson in hopes of unearthing details about the sex-trafficking she’s heard operates there. She meets Anna who has settled into a domestic and professional life with Phil. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the plot which at first turns mainly on unutterable pain and suffering, blossoms into a love story.

The book’s no-nonsense, sometimes airy prose to some extent underemphasizes the sordid violence it details. But its recounting of a brutal situation that a hundred years ago seemed invisible to White people in the Northeast, even while it took place directly among them in places like Hudson, is timely. The ugly emotional and moral sources of Anna’s story run deep in our history and are still virulently at play, pretty much ubiquitously, as event after event in America during just the past few years clearly demonstrate. “Green Grass” is a reminder of how ugly it can get.

Frances Rose is the pen name of Frances Drabick, who grew up in Hudson, New York, and has lived in Eastport for decades. Among her writings are several poems nominated for Pushcart Prizes. “Green Grass” is available through online book sellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Fridays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

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