What I read
Friend Mary all but shoved this book into my hands: “You’ve got to read this so we can talk about it.” Not a bad recommendation, I’d say. And Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book gave me much to think about. There’s racism, for one. And bias, ethnic discrimination, and privilege. Which, I’ve got to say, sounds very antiseptic compared to the gut-punch the novel delivers.
Ogden and Kitty Milton have got it all. Wealth, education, and social cachet. They are white. There is tragedy in their lives, as in all families: when four, their oldest son falls out a window to his death. Their daughter has epilepsy. Ogden and his best friend Dunc Houghton are marked by what they experience in Germany as Hitler consolidates his power.
But overall, it’s a good life. The couple raise three children–Joan, Evelynn, and Moss–who experience All The Best that their parents can offer. There are private schools, housekeepers, clubs. The opera. The art museum. And rules, of course: “Enter every room with a smile. Speak to everyone, regardless of their place, as another human being … so as to create an atmosphere of goodwill around you … when one has money, one ought never talk about it, and one out to think about it as little as possible.” Evelynn is the child who embraces the Milton ethos, where Joan (due, in part, to the fact that because of her epilepsy she decides not to marry) and Moss (a musician at heart trying to please his father by joining the family firm) chaff against its confines. Joan falls in love with a Jewish man and Moss with a Black journalist, but is their free-thinking enough of an antidote to the racism that poisons their privilege?
The Miltons also owned an island (yes, an entire island) off the coast of Maine where the family has summered since the Thirties. And it’s on this island that the story pivots when Len Levy, a Jew, and Reg Pauling, a Black man, attend a family engagement party in 1959. Right on the cusp of the civil rights movement.
Let the secret-keeping commence.
Now, nearly sixty years later, the Milton grandchildren must decide if they can afford to hold onto the island after the trust money runs out. The problem is that they each read their family history differently, and the decision is muddied as family secrets come to light.
So is Crocket Island an albatross? Or an anchor? As in so many families, the answer to hard questions depends on who you ask.
What I lived
I’m just starting to read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. (Another book recommended by Friend Mary.) For months it’s rested with my bedside reading and for months I kept moving it to the bottom of the pile. I’m willing to face my own shortcomings in matters of race–at least I say I am–but it can be hard to look yourself in the mirror without makeup. And I think that’s what DiAngelo intends for me to do. As does listening to the Derek Chauvin trial over the past couple weeks, unable to deny the devastation my people have wrought. So when I read The Guest Book my white privilege radar was already on high alert; it can be so much easier to see the speck in someone else’s eye–even a fictional someone!–all the while ignoring the log in one’s own.
And just as powerful a theme as race in The Guest Book is the whole idea of family secrets. Readers of this blog know I write about them quite often*. But that’s because I’ve seen firsthand their insidious effects: mental illness, substance abuse, toxic relationships, destroyed marriages, ruined finances.
But isn’t a secret what you tell your best friend when you are seven-years- old, hanging on the jungle gym at recess? Isn’t a secret is what you share with your favorite stuffed animal right before you fall asleep at night. What you shyly, tentatively, tell your first love. Secrets are sweet bits of ourselves that we lavish on those we love.
Talking about family secrets is nothing less than whitewash for something far more odious. People who wouldn’t dream of telling a lie, people who pride themselves on truth telling–they seem perfectly fine with family secrets. Why stir the pot? Why open old wounds?
What we forget is that even when one thinks the shit has been covered, it still stinks.
*Just a few of my ‘family secrets’ posts:
The Ninth Hour
The Winter in Anna
The Two Family House