Places have much greater permanence than people. Land exists for eons (now don’t get picky about ocean fronts migrating and the Big Island expanding. You know what I mean) whereas people last mere generations, and often much less. On the surface at least, Blackbird House
is a novel of place, in which the Blackbird House of the title is the stage, and each short story offers characters who play across it. There should be a name (and probably is, but I just do not know it, novel-in-stories or linked-stories maybe) for so-called novels that are comprised of linked short-stories. Maybe, as this one is about a house, it could be a building-roman
. This is a form Hoffman employs rarely. Her later book, The Red Garden
, does exactly the same thing, watching the lives that intersect a place over time. But she usually writes novels in a more traditional format.
Hoffman is very easy to read. Her characters are interesting and engaging, and I almost always want her people to persist beyond the pages of their particular tale. Sometimes they cross from one story to the next, and it is always a wonderful thing. The Blackbird House of the title was built in 18th century Cape Cod, at a time when the British were enforcing a blockade. Many of the locals were seafaring folk, fishermen mostly. John Hadley, a fisherman, and builder of the Blackbird House, who had planned to live a safer existence as a farmer, is at sea with his two sons, hoping for one last, end-of-season haul, when a sudden storm erupts, leaving only one survivor. Well, one human survivor. Young Isaac had taken along a blackbird that he had raised from a chick, and that blackbird makes it back home. This being Alice Hoffman, the bird not only made it back, but had turned white, supposedly from having touched sea foam. And so it begins.
Odd events take place in Hoffman’s magical universe. Pilot whales beach en masse, the voices of those not quite passed seem to be singing; a shipwreck survivor’s hands are marked by the copper bands of a barrel that had saved him, rumors of a serpent arise; the white blackbird puts in an appearance in every story, a stand-in for, or reminder of the title house, or maybe a reminder of an existential crisis for one of the characters, maybe just the spirit of the place; the color red seems to seep from the earth itself, a giant fish saves a shipwreck survivor, then takes payment by biting off one of the man’s legs. The man spits up fish teeth for the rest of his days. In other words, a typical Alice Hoffman magical, almost fairy-tale book. What fun!
The stories traverse two hundred years, and touch on some of the darker sides of our history. A poor woman, seemingly targeted by God or nature for particularly harsh treatment, manages to survive, somewhat addled, and the townies see her as a witch, with the accompanying shunning. This is New England after all.
As a summer resident of the Cape for 25 years by the time Blackbird House was published, Hoffman had a pretty good familiarity with the environment that informs her stories. This supported her tendency to ground this work with aspects of the land itself. In a relatively sere landscape, in which most local soil is not good for much, the land on which the Blackbird House sits stands out. Early on the property is planted with a pear tree that produces red fruit. Sweet peas and sweet turnips, planted in an early story feed characters in subsequent tales. Several characters manifest unusual, extreme connections to nature. One resident adds a bit of cannabis to the local flora, but that remains mostly out of sight in following tales. Several characters seem to have a rapport with the land that would make Tom Bombadil proud.
Loss is a permanent resident. From the widow of the opening piece to Ruth, in The Witch of Truro, who loses her parents to smallpox and her home to fire, and in a later story her husband; love is sought, sometimes found, often lost. This collection of stories has enough instances of loss and subsequent salvation that it could easily have been titled Lost and Found on the Cape
These are mostly tales of strong women. A few male characters get their moments in the spotlight, but it is primarily a female’s stage. Having to overcome misfortune, having to struggle against nature, ignorance, fear, lost hope, these women struggle to survive, whether that means doing in an abusive spouse, shearing off locks to aid in disguising as a man and joining the army, taking up residence with a one-legged blacksmith just to have a roof over her head, battling cancer, enduring years of abuse, suffering with loneliness, struggling to gain the affection of a man. Hope does battle with despair.
Hoffman offers a bit of mirroring in her front and back. The opening story has a 10-year old drowning at sea, and another young lad comes to a dark end in the final pages. This may have a root in Hoffman's personal experience. Hoffman bought an old Cape Cod house that was supposedly haunted by the ghost of a 10 year old who had drowned. During the writing of some of these stories, Hoffman was enduring chemo for cancer. In fact while she was being treated she met a neighbor, a girl, who was also being treated. That she incorporated into her story such earth-bound symbols of regeneration, the pear tree, the turnips, seems like no accident in light of that. Nor do the repeated struggles with misfortune that her characters endure.
Alice Hoffman has written many wonderful novels. Whether one considers this a true novel or some other form of literature, The Blackbird House
is an engaging, fascinating and satisfying read, combining the grounding of earth with flight of fantasy, in short, the work of a master of her craft.