Book of The Week #1: The Story of Land and Sea – Katy Simpson Smith

This potent debut novel of North Carolina coastal life in post-Revolutionary War America packs a lot in. It’s a story of father’s and daughters, of lost love and redemption, and of the complex, uneasy relationship between a young white mistress and the slave girl who is both her servant and companion. It’s the Harper imprint’s lead fiction title for fall and Library Journal compares it to Ahab’s Wife noting the “spare prose and storytelling style is resonant of oral history or folk tales.” Vogue has already weighed in saying it’s “set to be the debut of the year.”

I was drawn to read it when the editor pointed out that this isn’t the typical slave narrative—one that takes place on a large-scale cotton plantation with the expected power dynamics.  The earlier time period and coastal locale offer an eye-opening freshness. The author, who was raised in the South, is a historian who has written a study of early American motherhood in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Her deep understanding of race and parenting in that period inform the story and make for something unexpected. The special pleasure is how beautiful the writing is.

This is an Indie Next pick and review coverage is already scheduled for the NYTBR,  the Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Huffington Post, O, the Oprah Magazine and Southern Living. Additionally, Smith was profile in the July issue of Vogue and will be the lead review in the September issue of Elle. Smith will speak with Audie Cornish on NPR’s All Things Considered on August 22nd.

Katy Simpson Smith has knocked the debut ball out of the park with her first novel, The Story of Land and Sea.  A multi-generational epic in miniature, she tells the stories of a father and his daughter who contracts yellow fever, a woman who sails away from her father on a ‘pirate’ ship, and a slave woman who desperately tries to hold on to her beloved son.  It’s about familial relationships, the rights to own a human being, God and His mercies, and the strange relationship between people who live on land and love the sea.  If this sounds ponderous, it is anything but.  Smith keeps her writing graceful, like a dancer, dancing between the times and lives of these heart-wrenching stories.  In the end, they all come down to love; whether lost, gained, or sought, we all reach out for someone else and we all hope the sea doesn’t take them. This was a lovely book that I devoured.  One of the best of the year for certain.”
— Bill Carl, The Booksellers on Fountain Square, Cincinnati, OH

“A bereaved father and his son-in-law struggle to understand [the deaths of their daughters]…. Moll, [Tabitha’s slave companion is eventually] married off to another slave she did not know. Her only consolation is her feisty first-born son Davy, although she has other children, all girls. When John decides to strike out over land on a journey westward [with Davy], Moll’s heart is irrevocably shattered. Smith’s soulful language of loss is almost biblical, and the descriptions of her characters’ sorrows are poetic and moving.”
Publishers Weekly

The Story of Land and Sea (9780062335944) by Katy Simpson Smith.  $26.99 hardcover. 8/26/14 on sale.

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