Murphy family on Malaga Island. Photo courtesy of Peter Roberts

In the black-and-white photograph, the woman sits on a straight-backed chair and holds a toddler on her lap. Her face bears the lines of age and an expression of distrust, and her eyes stare directly at the camera.

Paul Harding looked back at her and saw the story he wanted to tell.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer had been searching for ideas for his next book. A deep dive on Google led him to a 1980 article about Malaga Island published in Down East magazine. It recounted the shameful story of how Maine forcibly removed all residents of a mixed-race fishing community on a small island off the coast of Phippsburg in 1912, a time when racist beliefs about genetics were shaping policy in the United States. Harding sought out more information and photographs. He looked at the old woman’s face and wondered, “What are you thinking right now?”

Harding’s book, “This Other Eden,” a fictional story inspired by Malaga Island, was published in January. The novel has been met with praise and is on the short list for both the National Book Award and the Booker Prize, the winners of which will be announced this month.

But it has also been criticized by those who know the true story best.

“It’s being awarded and being touted as a great piece of work,” said Charmagne Tripp, whose grandfather was from Malaga Island and who has decided not to read the novel. “The fear is that people will believe that is actually what the people of Malaga were like, and instead of going and doing their own research or finding out more, that will perpetuate the negative light that our community was looked at in. I think that’s really hurtful to the folks that are descended from that island.”


In an interview, Harding said he deliberately set aside his research when he began writing his novel. None of the characters are based on real people, he said, and he did not consult with descendants or historians during the decade in which he worked on the book. That’s because he did not set out to write nonfiction or even historical fiction. He wanted to write about humanity.

Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Harding’s new novel is up for major literary awards this month. Photo by Sam Harding

“Is it at the end of the day a work that is rendering and bearing witness and lingering over lives that otherwise would have been passed over, if not obliterated?” Harding said. “It’s the spirit of the thing. If it’s fiction, it can’t be the letter of the thing. That’s history.”

But state archivist Kate McBrien said “This Other Eden” contains enough fact to be recognizable as Malaga Island and enough fiction to resurrect myths that historians have been working for years to disprove.

Take the photograph of the woman that inspired Harding. The image is from a postcard that was widely distributed with a slur on the front. Harding said he imagined the moment the picture was taken and set the scene on his fictional Apple Island. In his mind, the woman was looking at the photographer and thinking, “What the hell are you doing on my island? Get out of my house.” In the novel, a photographer took portraits of the residents during a degrading visit by state officials, and the images are later turned into offensive postcards sold at the local general store. In reality, McBrien said, a missionary group staged the photo to portray the woman a certain way, and she does not believe “This Other Eden” did enough to acknowledge the influence of that outsider gaze.

“The photograph that he refers to is a racist postcard with a racist title that was sold nationwide,” McBrien said. “It was purposefully set up to make them look more disheveled and dirty. Without doing the research to understand that, I think he does more harm than good.”



Paul Harding, 55, grew up in Wenham, Massachusetts. His maternal grandparents were originally from Maine, and he visited the state every summer. His grandfather would drive him down logging roads in a rattling station wagon to find his favorite fishing spots.

“All the while, he would be telling stories about his life growing up,” Harding said.

Harding studied English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and then became a drummer. When his band called it quits, he signed up for a fiction writing workshop taught by the novelist Marilynne Robinson at Skidmore College in New York. Within 10 minutes, he knew what he wanted for his life. His debut novel, “Tinkers,” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2010. He later published a second book called “Enon,” and “This Other Eden” is his third. Harding now lives on Long Island (in New York, not in Maine) and is the director of the MFA program in creative writing and literature at Stony Brook University.

From William Shakespeare to Claudia Rankine, his favorite writers span history. But admittedly, he reads “a lot of very old stuff.” The Old Testament is heavily present in his curriculum and his writing, for example.

“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Who’s your favorite author right now?’” he said with a laugh. “I said, ‘Oh, God, I think it’s Moses.’”

When he first read about Malaga Island, the story haunted him. He felt that familiar tug toward Maine, where “Tinkers” is also set. He realized that the first International Eugenics Congress took place in London the same summer that the state evicted the island residents. He made connections to the island in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and to the stories he teaches from The Old Testament. He saw a story forming in his mind about preserving human dignity in the face of degradation.


“It treats some of the most intractable and problematic and perennial issues that humans face everywhere, right?” Harding said. “As an artist, that’s catnip to me. That’s what I want to tackle. And I want to do it in good faith, I want to do it with respect, and I want to do it with dignity and all of that sort of thing. At the same time, what I have to insist on is that you can’t read it as failed history. Because it’s not trying to be documentary. It’s not trying to bring the actual historical people’s lives onto the page.”

A group of Malaga Island students outside. Photo courtesy of Peter Roberts

The book has received critical acclaim since its publication.

“Not without complication, not without terror, ‘This Other Eden’ is ultimately a testament of love: love of kin, love of nature, love of art, love of self, love of home,” poet Danez Smith wrote in a review in the New York Times. “Harding has written a novel out of poetry and sunlight, violent history and tender remembering. The humans he has created are, thankfully, not flattened into props and gimmicks, which sometimes happens when writers work across time and difference; instead they pulse with aliveness, dreamlike but tangible, so real it could make you weep.”

“Based on a relatively unknown true story, Paul Harding’s heartbreakingly beautiful novel transports us to a unique island community scrabbling a living,” the Booker Prize judges wrote about “This Other Eden.” “The panel were moved by the delicate symphony of language, land and narrative that Harding brings to bear on the story of the islanders.”


Malaga Island is located in the New Meadows River, just off Phippsburg’s western shore.


Historians say the community that was eventually evicted from the island likely traced its origins to an African American man named Benjamin Darling, who purchased a nearby island in 1794. His descendants and family settled in the area. The records are not clear, but the first family likely moved to Malaga Island in the early 1860s.

Over the years, a mixed-race community grew on the island. Artifacts, documents and photographs show their coastal settlement was a fairly ordinary one, where residents made their living fishing or doing whatever work they could find on the mainland.

But the fact that many islanders were of at least partial African descent made their quiet community a target of the burgeoning eugenics movement, which popularized racist falsehoods about genetics. They also lived in prime real estate when the state’s tourism industry was growing. Missionaries, officials and journalists spread the idea that the people of Malaga Island were degenerate.

An archival image shows a house on Malaga Island. In 1912, the state ordered the island’s 47 residents to leave their homes. Photo courtesy of Peter Roberts

In 1912, the state ordered its 47 residents to leave the island. Eight were committed to what was then called the Maine School for the Feeble Minded in New Gloucester, now known as Pineland Farms. The state even exhumed the remains buried on the island, combined 17 individuals into five caskets and moved their graves to the school grounds, where they remain today.

Bob Greene, a retired journalist who lives in Minot, has researched newspaper accounts about the people of Malaga Island. He said the details published across the country were lurid, shocking and unfounded. Correcting the record today is critically important.

“It’s very important because the history that is known already is wrong,” he said.



In 2010, nearly a century after the evictions, Maine Gov. John Baldacci visited the still-vacant island and apologized to the descendants of Benjamin Darling for the injustice. The state later added a monument at Pineland Farms to the residents of Malaga Island who were forced to leave their homes.

McBrien, the state archivist, has researched the island for more than 20 years. She often gives talks about the island and always starts by asking who in the audience has heard about it. Ten years ago, one or two people would raise their hands. Now, most at least know the name.

State Archivist Katherine McBrien looks through a box of Executive Council records from the early 1900s Friday in a Maine State Archives storage area in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

But few know the full story, she said, and they instead repeat myths that have been disproven by historians. At a recent talk, one audience member said they heard the island residents were mistresses of sea captains. Another said they had been told everyone on the island had leprosy. Both statements are untrue, McBrien said.

When McBrien read “This Other Eden,” her kids asked her why she wouldn’t abandon a book that made her swear so much.

“In reading the story, a lot of the characteristics of the people who lived on his fictional island perpetuated a lot of the myths that the state government and eugenicists created to give them a reason to evict everyone,” she said.


As one example, she said newspapers repeatedly reported stories about “incest and wife swapping” on the island that were untrue. But “This Other Eden” includes multiple instances of incest, including a father who rapes his daughter and a pair of siblings who are married.

“It’s continuing the myths that existed around the community for so long,” McBrien said. “These myths lasted for generations, and it’s only through some of the research of the real history that we’ve been able to begin to correct that. But unfortunately, he’s still including those in his depictions of the characters that I think are harmful.”


For many years, descendants hid their ties to Malaga Island because of those hurtful falsehoods. Today, some are discovering that connection for the first time and connecting with one another on social media.

Tripp, whose grandfather was from Malaga Island, lives in Connecticut and said her family only discovered their connection to it within the last 20 years.

“Malaga is coming on people’s radar,” she said. “They’re inspired by it, and they’re moved by it. I think one of the things that folks need to keep in mind is that this information is fresh for us, too. We are processing, and we are healing. … It’s worth taking a minute to think about that.”


As a songwriter and artist, Tripp said she understands the value of creative freedom. She also said she thinks artists should be held accountable for the consequences of their work. Over the years, she said others have contacted direct descendants for their input on creative projects inspired by the story of Malaga Island. Some family members are hurt that Harding did not make the same overtures.

“Regardless of how the work comes out, the intention was to talk to the people whose story it was,” Tripp, 51, said. “To me, that was thoughtful and caring.”

Marnie Darling Voter at her home in Windham in February. Darling Voter is a descendant of Benjamin Darling, who lived on Horse Island and whose ancestors later lived on Malaga Island. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Marnie Darling Voter, of Windham, is also descended from Benjamin Darling, although her own direct ancestors did not live on Malaga Island. She has advocated for the story to be more widely known and has at times acted as a representative for the family.

Voter said she is often frustrated by fiction about Malaga Island, and she was reluctant to pick up “This Other Eden.” When she did read the novel, she recognized real anecdotes and names. She also saw incest and other details that reminded her of lies spread by newspapers at the time to disparage the islanders. Like McBrien and Tripp, she is concerned that readers will wrongly take the fictional story as the true one.

Voter said the direct descendants she has spoken with about the book want nothing to do with it and feel angry that someone is profiting off a version of their family’s story.

“I’m so tired of these people being maligned over and over,” she said.


Harding has heard the criticism of his book and said he welcomes an open dialogue about his choices. He said he felt it was important to tell readers upfront that Malaga Island inspired the book because it would be disingenuous not to.

“Fiction is always inspired by real life,” he said. “It can’t be inspired by anything else. So I think there always has been that very dynamic tension between fictional narrative and telling stories, and its relationship to the real-life experiences from which it is derived. It’s an intractable issue. As a writer, you can’t be quiet about it and pretend it’s not there.”

In the decade that Harding worked on the novel, he never visited Malaga Island. When a national newspaper asked to photograph him there, he balked and declined. He didn’t feel it was his place to set foot on the island or to contact the descendants of those who did.

“If you start getting more granular with the facts and the history, you start getting into people’s lives and descendants and the families,” he said. “I have no organic connection to Malaga Island. I wouldn’t be the person to write the history or something that was documentary.”

Harding said he did not know that incest was one of the falsehoods weaponized against the real residents of Malaga Island, and that was “an unfortunate coincidence.”

“That’s a perfect instance of why I didn’t do a history,” he said.



Before now, perhaps the best-known fiction book inspired by Malaga Island was “Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy” by Gary D. Schmidt, a children’s story that won the Newbery Honor in 2005. Schmidt lives in Michigan and teaches children’s literature at Calvin University but has family ties to Brunswick. It was on a trip to the Midcoast that he first read about Malaga Island in a local guidebook, which launched years of research. He also did not contact or meet any descendants of the island until after his book published.

Schmidt wrote multiple drafts from the perspective of a fictional young Black girl on the island but questioned that decision as a white man. He ultimately rewrote the book from the perspective of a white minister’s son who lived on the mainland and befriended the girl. Still, he felt a need to be as true to the facts as possible.

He even decided that the book would end with the girl’s death at what is now Pineland Farms, an unusual choice for a children’s book, because the research available at the time led him to believe that was the likely outcome. Since then, he has learned most of the family members who were committed to the then-Maine School for the Feeble Minded lived for years, a correction he always shares with young audiences on school visits.

An archival image depicts the former residents of Malaga Island, which is located in the New Meadows River, just off Phippsburg in Sagadahoc County. Photo courtesy of Peter Roberts

He said he hopes “Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy” helps young people learn about this injustice in Maine and similar examples across the country so they can make change in the future.

“I thought I should honor what exactly happened,” said Schmidt, who has not read “This Other Eden.”


Portland artist Daniel Minter also has not read Harding’s novel and said he could not speak to its contents. When he first heard about Malaga Island, Minter thought about Black communities that had been destroyed in his home state of Georgia and saw a connection to a broader history. Over the years, he has collaborated with historians, archeologists and descendants to create visual art about Malaga Island.

“I think of my work as fiction,” Minter said. “My images don’t really tell the story. They just give you cues to help you retell the story and to help you create a narrative.”

When Minter started making paintings about Malaga Island, he used a single figure in a particular pose. Over the years, he has built on that figure with greater detail and more layers because he felt that the local community was more familiar with the story and he could be more expressive.

He said he hopes the increase in fictional stories about Malaga Island over the years is a sign of the same deliberate progress.

“In seeing these books, it makes me feel that OK, there’s enough factual information out here so we can create a fantasy, and people will know the difference,” Minter said.

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