Cover art for "This Other Eden," by Paul Harding. Credit: Courtesy W.W. Norton

In his third novel, “This Other Eden,” Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Paul Harding takes a dark chapter in Maine history and turns it into a stirring, evocative tale about family, love, the idea of home and the deep-seated racism that underpins our society.

Malaga Island, the real-life place just off the coast of Phippsburg in Maine, and Apple Island from the book, published last month by W.W. Norton, aren’t exactly one and the same, but it’s pretty close.

In a time when interracial marriage was outlawed throughout most of the country and formerly enslaved people were subjected to barbaric treatment, Malaga was a rare example of racial harmony — especially in Maine.

For decades until 1912, a small group of mixed-race people descended from both former slaves and Irish immigrants lived on Malaga Island, before the state forcibly removed them. A handful of descendents of the Malaga Islanders still live in southern Maine, but the story of their ancestors was swept under the rug for close to a century.  

In the book, the remaining descendents of Benjamin and Patience Honey — a formerly enslaved man and his Irish wife, the first non-Indigenous settlers on Apple Island in Maine — are eking out a hardscrabble but seemingly idyllic existence.

About 20 people are living on Apple by 1911, when the bulk of the book takes place. They range from the direct descendents of the Honeys, including island matriarch Esther and her talented grandson, Ethan, to more interesting sorts like Zachary Hand to God Proverbs, a holy man and a hermit, and the Lark family, who live a wild, unabashedly unorthodox life.

In real life Malaga, things weren’t all that different. Scholars believe that a man named Benjamin Darling, a freed slave on a merchant’s ship in 1790, came to live on Malaga and on nearby Horse Island. Darling married a woman of Irish descent, and their mixed-race descendents came to live on Malaga, numbering around 40 by 1900.

Though they were effectively squatters, there were many examples at that time of people living on Maine islands they didn’t own or have a lease for — the only difference was that the Malaga residents were not white.

The names in real life and in the book are different, but the result is the same. In both reality and the novel, by the early 20th century, the Maine government, religious leaders and corrupt journalists conspired to destroy the island settlement through any means necessary.

In the book, a white missionary and teacher named Matthew Diamond comes to Apple Island. He’s disgusted by the mixing of races there, and is particularly repulsed by the darker skinned residents. And yet, he grows to like the children, particularly young Ethan Honey, who is lighter-skinned and a talented artist.

Diamond nevertheless is complicit in bringing government officials and reporters to the island, who quickly decide to remove its residents to the mainland, under the guise of progress.

In real life, almost the same thing happened on Malaga Island. Buoyed by the nascent eugenics movement — a long-discredited theory that held that “undesirable” genetic traits should be removed from the population, often by forced sterilization — newspapers in Maine and New England began to report on the “immoral” lifestyle of the islanders. Newspapers, including the Bangor Daily News, condemned them as “shiftless, lazy and ignorant,” full of “poverty, immorality and disease,” and a “shameful disgrace.”

In 1911, the state evicted the islanders. Some left on their own, while others were forcibly removed. Eight residents were moved to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded in Pownal, which for decades kept people with disabilities living in inhumane conditions; it’s now home to Pineland Farms. The remaining houses on the island were burned down, and the bodies of the 15 people buried in the cemetery were dug up and reburied in unmarked graves on the mainland.

Descendant Charmane Glass-Tripp speaking at the dedication ceremony at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester honoring the people forcibly removed from Malaga Island in the early 1900s. Credit: Patty Wight / Maine Public

The island was sold to a friend of Maine’s then-governor, Frederick Plaisted, who planned to create a resort there. That never came to pass. Today, the island is a nature preserve. Following research in the early 2000s, in 2010, Maine legislators and then-Gov. John Baldacci issued a statement of regret and an official apology for the Malaga incident.

The shadows of the past loom large in reality and in fiction. The kind of stark, almost biblical tones struck throughout “This Other Eden” — a recurring theme is a flood that threatens to swallow up the Apple Islanders — add to the sense that while the populations on both Apple and Malaga were small, their repercussions were huge.

Harding’s prose is full of beautiful imagery that illuminates not just the suffering of its characters, but their internal lives and unique way of living.

What could have been a story of victimization instead is a lyrical, powerful ode to resiliency and the strength of family. By the end of the book, there’s a palpable sense, not just of the injustice wreaked upon the islanders both real and imagined, but also the vitality of their unique and important lives.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.