The Right-Hand Shore
By Christopher Tilghman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 9780374203481, 368pp.)
Publication Date: April 24, 2012
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A masterful novel that confronts the dilemmas of race, family, and forbidden love in the wake of America’s Civil War
Fifteen years after the publication of his acclaimed novel Mason’s Retreat, Christopher Tilghman returns to the Mason family and the Chesapeake Bay in The Right-Hand Shore.
It is 1920, and Edward Mason is making a call upon Miss Mary Bayly, the current owner of the legendary Mason family estate, the Retreat. Miss Mary is dying. She plans to give the Retreat to the closest direct descendant of the original immigrant owner that she can find. Edward believes he can charm the old lady, secure the estate and be back in Baltimore by lunchtime.
Instead, over the course of a long day, he hears the stories that will forever bind him and his family to the land. He hears of Miss Mary’s grandfather brutally selling all his slaves in 1857 in order to avoid the reprisals he believes will come with Emancipation. He hears of the doomed efforts by Wyatt Bayly, Miss Mary’s father, to turn the Retreat into a vast peach orchard, and of Miss Mary and her brother growing up in a fractured and warring household. He learns of Abel Terrell, son of free blacks who becomes head orchardist, and whose family becomes intimately connected to the Baylys and to the Mason legacy.
The drama in this richly textured novel proceeds through vivid set pieces: on rural nineteenth-century industry; on a boyhood on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; on the unbreakable divisions of race and class; and, finally, on two families attempting to save a son and a daughter from the dangers of their own innocent love. The result is a radiant work of deep insight and peerless imagination about the central dilemma of American history.
The Right-Hand Shore is a New York Times Notable Book of 2012.
Christopher Tilghman is the author of two short-story collections, In a Father’s Place and The Way People Run, and two novels, Mason’s Retreat and Roads of the Heart. Currently the director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Virginia, he and his wife, the writer Caroline Preston, live in Charlottesville, Virginia.
- What were your first impressions of Mary? How did your perception of her shift as you watched her life unfold?
Praise for The Right-Hand Shore:
“Constructed, Wuthering Heights style, . . . The Right-Hand Shore represents an outing of some of America’s most troubled ghosts . . . Tilghman unfolds his harsh lesson with precision, delicacy and startling humor . . . ‘The Right-Hand Shore’ is the dark, magisterial creation of a writer with an uncanny feel for the intersections of place and character in American history. His readers will want to hear more stories from the Eastern Shore estate. Let’s just hope he doesn’t keep us waiting for another 16 years.” —Fernanda Eberstadt, New York Times Book Review
“Tilghman’s exquisite third novel returns to the eastern shore of Maryland to prefigure the events of his first, Mason’s Retreat. It’s 1920, and recently married Edward Mason has arrived at the Retreat—a former planation and peach orchard, and now a dairy—to meet his distant cousin, Mary Bayly, the current owner. Mary’s cancer has put the fate of the property in jeopardy—and Edward in line to receive the gift and burden of the land. After an unsettling interview with the formidable Mary, Edward sits with the longtime property manager, Oral French, and his wife, who recount the Retreat’s secrets, from miscegenation to slavery to murder. Listening to the pain caused by pride, selfishness, and the desire for love, Edward feels ‘mauled by the pull of the past, still so fresh for these people.’ The tale’s descent into tragedy is nevertheless beautiful; ‘creamy yellow’ sunlight and the perfume of peach blossoms pervade Mason’s Retreat alongside its ghosts and horrors. Tilghman maneuvers through the misery of three generations, following each elegant plot turn inevitably back to its source: this living, breathing land on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[Tilghman] writes so beautifully . . . His long paragraphs and the susurrus of Maryland landscape—‘water grasses with tufts of white blossoms, wild privet, and scraggly water elm’—weave an intoxicating spell. The novel’s characters are utterly engrossing. All possess that American familial yen for somehow correcting the mistakes of their own upbringing—of doing better. Yet they are caught in a system designed for stasis. This contradiction creates terrible predicaments that seem designed to bear the maximum amount of pressure on the awful compromises Tilghman’s characters must make.” —John Freeman, The Boston Globe
“The past has a way of making hearts ache in Christopher Tilghman’s excellent novel The Right-Hand Shore. Set in Maryland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his story explores the desires that drive people to try to overcome the past . . . Tilghman, who directs the creative writing program at the University of Virginia, is a short story writer as well as a novelist. Many chapters in his new book could nearly stand on their own as captivating glimpses into the relationships—white and black, owner and workman, man and woman, parent and child—that revolve around the Retreat . . . Tilghman’s skill at presenting the clashing points of view for his characters is matched by his ability to evoke their place and time, whether it’s a Catholic girls school in Paris or a black village on the peninsula called Tuckertown. There’s never a false note, either, only poignant and surprising ones that linger long after the last page.” —Douglas K. Daniel, Associated Press
“Tilghman is such a master of mood that . . . I just kept rereading isolated sentences—like lines of poetry—to savor his descriptions . . . He so fully inhabits the marshy souls of his characters, there's never any of those awkward moments where, as a reader, you’re jarred out of his story with the awareness that you're reading ‘historical fiction.’ With The Right-Hand Shore, Tilghman remains ‘the real deal.’” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“A hugely enjoyable saga, elegantly told.” —David Evans, Financial Times
“A rare achievement. Christopher Tilghman’s vision of the American past—and particularly of individuals caught in the tidal sweep of history—is dazzling in its precision and clarity.” —Charles Frazier, winner of the National Book Award for Cold Mountain
“Christopher Tilghman is a novelist’s novelist in that he can hold the years in his head and then deal them out in a layered story so achingly gracious and incisive that it becomes for a week in a reader’s house the very reason for the chair, the lamp. Offered in Tilghman’s astonishing prose, the story of this place—focusing on two families, two races, the history of a peach orchard, and a love that is both natural and forbidden—is a reader’s deep pleasure. The story flows inexorably through the insistent harm of the period, which is brought to such life that we see it is really our own. This is a big, wonderful novel.” —Ron Carlson, author of The Signal and Five Skies
“This is bold storytelling—a man spends a day listening to tales of the past that become an eloquent set of voices sailing through his imagination and into an intimate history of a place called Mason’s Retreat. It’s a wonderful novel, unfolded in elegant and precise language.” —Bobbie Ann Mason, author of Shiloh Praise for Roads of the Heart: “American literary fiction now offers far fewer pleasures than it did a few decades ago, but the novels and short stories of Christopher Tilghman go a long way toward making up for the failures of other writers.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
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For its 10th anniversary, the festival celebrates those who have dared to stand ‘on the edge,’ risking their careers, and sometimes their lives, to speak out for their art and beliefs. Join us for a wide range of events, including debates, one-on-one conversations, participatory workshops and performances in venues throughout the city. Use the code PEN14 (use PEN2014 for events at The Public Theater) and receive a 20 percent discount on most events. www.worldvoicesfestival.org