Friday, August 13, 2010
Friday Book Review: The Outer Banks House by Diann Ducharme
Being a long-time vacationer on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and an American history buff, I thoroughly enjoyed Diann Ducharme's debut novel, The Outer Banks House.
The story is set in 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. Abigail Sinclair, a seventeen year old daughter of a North Carolina plantation owner, moves to her family's new summer cottage on the beach at Nags Head on the Outer Banks. She's lived a privileged, sheltered life, despite the fact that the war has taken its toll on the family's plantation. Abigail's mother is distant and aloof, her father is a man's man, consumed with hunting, fishing, and unbeknownst to Abigail, involved in a manhunt motivated by racism and revenge.
As a favor to his hunting guide, Ben Whimble, Abigail's father insists that she teach him to write and read each afternoon after the day's hunt has concluded. Ben, who is dirt poor, filthy, and unrefined, disgusts Abigail at first. Eventually, however, Ben's down-to-earth sensibility, kindness, and broader view of the world wins Abigail's affections. Abigail's parents approve of and encourage a match for their daughter not with Ben, but rather with Hector, a medical student from their hometown of Edenton. Hector turns Abigail off since he is interested only in having an attractive wife to compliment his future career in medicine. Social and familial pressures cause Abigail to maintain her relationship with Hector, despite her distaste for him. Abigail finds herself sneaking out to spend time with Ben, though she knows her parents would disapprove.
Meanwhile, Ben is assisting Abigail's father with more than just hunting and fishing. Though he is angry with himself for doing it, Ben helps Abigail's father locate a runaway former slave of a plantation owner associated with Mr. Sinclair. Roanoke Island is home to a large number of freed slaves, and Ben, being intimately familiar with the land and the people of the Outer Banks, is the best person to infiltrate the colony of freed slaves to locate the subject of the manhunt. The act of helping Abigail's father with the manhunt goes against Ben's nature, but he's been promised a good paying job building the Hatteras lighthouse in return for the assistance.
Abigail soon becomes intertwined with the Roanoke Island colony by teaching former slaves to read and write. She is unaware of the clandestine activities of both her father and Ben, but the ugly truth eventually reveals itself, forcing Abigail out of her innocence.
I appreciated the descriptions of the land and the historical accuracy that Ducharme lovingly weaved throughout the story. For anyone familiar with the Outer Banks, the author hit all the major historical draws of the area including the wild horses, life-saving stations, Jockey's Ridge, and the rich heritage of Roanoke Island with the Lost Colony and the Freedman's Colony. Of course, the Wright Brothers' first flight did not take place until a few decades later.
I also enjoyed the exploration of racism and race relations in the post Civil-War era. In some respects, freed slaves had a more difficult way in life than before the war, without the benefit of education, business networks, and established communities. The book is told from the points of view of both Abigail and Ben. Ben's voice, in particular, is very strong, reminding me a bit of an older Huck Finn. The plot line itself was solid, but the layering of setting, history, and social issues made the novel that much more rich.
Check back with Fiction Flurry in the coming weeks for an interview with the author, Diann Ducharme!