“This Other Eden,” Paul Harding’s third novel, is brief in length but lands with the weight of a prophecy. Inspired by a true, shameful episode in Maine history, the book opens with a quote from the Maine Coast Heritage Trust about Malaga Island, home to “a mixed-race fishing community from the mid-1800s-1912, when the state of Maine evicted 47 residents from their homes and exhumed and relocated their buried dead….”

Harding’s plot follows the bare outline of those real life islanders: a community living in peace is exiled from their longtime home in what is essentially a government land grab, many conscripted to institutions, victims of racist displacement and bureaucratic bungling. Harding’s novel makes the tragedy palpable and urgent, revealing long-buried history with an intimacy and power that’s hard to shake.

The setting is fictional Apple Island, settled in 1793 by the formerly enslaved Benjamin Honey and Patience, his Irish immigrant wife. Apple Island is “hardly three hundred feet across a channel from the mainland, just under forty-two acres … the only human trace an abandoned Penobscot shell berm….” Life on the island was possible, the descendants say, because “in the final years of the eighteenth century it was not as dangerous as it came to be later for Black men to range the land. Any able-bodied adult who kept peace and lent a hand at surviving was accepted.”

Benjamin plants apple seeds in honor of his mother; trees eventually flourish and bear fruit. But the Honeys’ Eden also suffers a flood that nearly wipes them out. This origin story is told and retold, known “as well as the one from the Bible” and passed down from the flood’s survivors to their descendants.

Those descendants have endured racism, hunger and the harshest conditions. They are resourceful, self-sufficient, deeply impoverished. In some cases, inbreeding has led to mental and physical oddities that the state finds suspect. Their home is a refuge from dangers faced on an inhospitable mainland, absorbing outcasts and newcomers in need of shelter. But by 1911, the novel’s present, the community has dwindled to a handful of tight-knit families:

“And so there the last of the Honeys were – fourth, fifth, and sixth generations’ distillate of Angolan fathers and Scottish grandpas, Irish mothers and Congolese grannies, Cape Verdean uncles and Penobscot aunts, cousins from Dingle, Glasgow, and Montserrat, the wind thumping, the snow swirling, their stomachs growling, their toes and fingers burned black to icicles, crowding the cooling woodstove…. Noah had his ark. The Honeys had Apple Island.”


Esther Honey is the novel’s moral force and intellectual center, the survivor of a brutal past (including rape by her father) who is first to see the dangers posed by mainland do-gooders, their zeal emboldened by the eugenics movement. Esther watches over a remarkable cast of family and neighbors, understanding that their best hope for survival is their capacity to live and work in harmony with each other and with nature. The McDermott sisters are washerwomen who take in three Penobscot orphans. The gender nonconforming Larks have free-range children, including Rabbit, who appears to outsiders as feral and “feeble-minded” but is in fact the “crown princess of Apple Island … girl and island were one another’s dearly beloved.” Zachary Hand to God Proverbs is a far-seeing Civil War Veteran who carves a lifetime of stories inside a hollow tree.

When Matthew Diamond, a white teacher, his bigotry cloaked in progressive ideals, opens an island school, he sets the stage for calamitous intervention. Diamond is as determined to save Apple Island’s children as he is secretly repelled by their elders, and Esther has his number:

“(She) disliked him and felt more than ever as if he signaled doom, but something about what he was trying to make out of Scripture fascinated her, despite herself. His ideas chased their own tails and he was a confirmed, chronic hand-wringer, and he seemed to be letting every mayor, doctor, minister, and judge hear about Apple Island, but the man was well read and thoughtful … she knew he wrestled with something exact and well-intended in mind. Like, if he ever settled his thoughts and untied his tongue, he might write something as good as one of Shakespeare’s worst couplets. …Terrible how terribly good intentions turn out almost every time.”

Esther and Matthew strike up a friendship of sorts, discussing Shakespeare and the Bible (he’s surprised at how educated she is); but even as his admiration grows, the Apple Islanders are on a disastrous collision course with the state.

The novel’s revelatory power arises from its lyrical language and a measured cadence that builds toward its inexorable conclusion. Early in the novel, I wondered whether the poetic, lush prose might unduly soften the stark pain at the story’s heart. But Harding’s language is its strength, achieving a mythic, transfixing power. His pacing and philosophical attentiveness feel like a throwback, resisting the shallow fleetness of our times. We can see the debt owed to the Transcendentalists, and Harding’s literary lineage with his teacher, the great Marilynne Robinson.

One central observation here is just how difficult – and essential – it is to strive to see the full scope of others’ experiences. And how tragedy ensues when we fail. A stunning section describing how Esther’s taciturn and capable son, Eha, fells a mighty pine with Zachary’s help and builds their sturdy house, plank by plank, is closely followed by a passage detailing the disgust of a state lackey who arrives to hand out eviction notices and sees only “filthy, ragged, animals.”


Esther’s grandson, Ethan, a teenage artist “saved” through Matthew’s intercession, is packed off to study art with a wealthy benefactor in Massachusetts (he’s not the only talented island child, but Ethan is singled out because he passes for white). On that sojourn, Ethan meets and falls in love with Bridget Carney, a young Irish maid whose fate subsequently entangles with the Honeys.

It must be noted that Harding is a white writer creating Black and brown characters. Valuable criticism has raised the question: can and should writers write “outside their lane”? Doing so risks cliché and clumsiness; at worst, it can cause real harm. Harding sets doubt aside, focusing on what fiction is uniquely equipped to do: each indelible character is crafted from the inside out, with exacting care and empathy. In these pages, we feel the fullness of experience – not just of Esther Honey and Rabbit Lark and Zachary Hand to God Proverbs and all their neighbors – but also in the sad case of Matthew Diamond, doomed to understand too late what his ignorance and blindness has cost. All are outside Harding’s – or any contemporary writer’s – lane. And all are brought palpably to life.

Tragedies possess a mysterious alchemical power to simultaneously break and enlarge our hearts. Mainers can and should learn the real history of Malaga Island, more available now than it’s ever been, thanks to important work by the islanders’ descendants, the Maine State Archivist and others. “This Other Eden” invites us to deeply feel injustice imposed by well-meaning and righteous people; and in doing so, to consider how we might be failing our most vulnerable, least understood neighbors today.

This incandescent novel will leave readers shaken and grateful – and haunted by complex, layered characters who live, breathe, suffer, and are set adrift, sailing on into an unknown future.

Genanne Walsh is the author of a novel, “Twister,” and a forthcoming chapbook, “Eggs in Purgatory.” She lives in Portland.

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