Thursday, September 4, 2014

Book Review: The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith

From Goodreads:
Set in a small coastal town in North Carolina during the waning years of the American Revolution, this incandescent debut novel follows three generations of family—fathers and daughters, mother and son, master and slave, characters who yearn for redemption amidst a heady brew of war, kidnapping, slavery, and love. 

Drawn to the ocean, ten-year-old Tabitha wanders the marshes of her small coastal village and listens to her father’s stories about his pirate voyages and the mother she never knew. Since the loss of his wife Helen, John has remained land-bound for their daughter, but when Tab contracts yellow fever, he turns to the sea once more. Desperate to save his daughter, he takes her aboard a sloop bound for Bermuda, hoping the salt air will heal her.

Years before, Helen herself was raised by a widowed father. Asa, the devout owner of a small plantation, gives his daughter a young slave named Moll for her tenth birthday. Left largely on their own, Helen and Moll develop a close but uneasy companionship. Helen gradually takes over the running of the plantation as the girls grow up, but when she meets John, the pirate turned Continental soldier, she flouts convention and her father’s wishes by falling in love. Moll, meanwhile, is forced into marriage with a stranger. Her only solace is her son, Davy, whom she will protect with a passion that defies the bounds of slavery.

In this elegant, evocative, and haunting debut, Katy Simpson Smith captures the singular love between parent and child, the devastation of love lost, and the lonely paths we travel in the name of renewal.
This one definitely falls into the literary subgenre of historical fiction.  It's just beautifully done, in terms of characterization and language in particular.  It's certainly more character-driven than plot-driven, but that serves so well to highlight the beautiful word choices and style.  The book is divided into three parts, each focusing on one of the women: Helen, her slave, Moll, and Helen's daughter, Tabitha and how each one's life affects Helen's father, Asa and husband, John.  It's simply beautiful writing.

Entertainment Value
Again, it's not plot-driven.  Things happen and events progress, but it's much more a character study, or a set of character studies, than it is a forward-moving story.  That said, I couldn't have enjoyed it more.  It's the perfect length and read quickly, despite the fact that it is more focused on character development than plot.

One really cool thing that this book does that I haven't read before is examine slavery during a Revolutionary War time period.  I've read plenty of books that address slavery during the Antebellum and Civil War eras, mostly set in the South, or focusing on the flight of slaves north, but I've never read a book that examines slavery in early American history.

This is a great choice if you're a fan of historical fiction with a more literary bent.  Those who enjoyed Hannah Kent's Burial Rites would probably also love this one.

Thanks to TLC for having me on the tour and providing me with a review copy!


  1. I love historical fiction and fantastic characters so this one is on my list!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

  2. I agree. The writing is outstanding and the characters were the main focus.

    Thanks for a great review.

    Mine is up on September 12.