This Other Eden is a work of historical fiction based on the story of Malaga Island from the mid-1800s to 1912.
This Other Eden begins when Benjamin Honey, a former slave, shows up on an uninhabited Island with “his wife, Patience, nee Raferty, a Galway girl, in 1793.” The island was “hardly three hundred feet across a channel from the mainland, just under 42 acres, twelve hundred feet across. East to west, and fifteen hundred feet long, north to south…” Benjamin brought with him various apple seeds, all of which failed to grow, and a determination to create a life on the island. The island became known as Apple Island.
The story then moves to 1911 focused on the Honey descendants and other residents of the island. Esther Honey is the great granddaughter of Benjamin and lives with her son, Eha and her grandchildren Charlotte (age 8), Tabitha (age 10) and Ethan (age 15). There are also two other families on the island, the Larks and the McDermotts, as well as Annie Parker, “who lived alone, and Zachary Hand to G-d Proverb, who lived by himself, too, mostly inside a hollow tree…” There were three dogs on the island too.
The families seem happy in their situations. The Larks, most likely brother and sister as well as husband and wife, have four living children with various issues. The McDermott sisters are raising Norma, Emily and Scotty Sockalexis. Their mother, Cheryl Sockalexis, claimed that her brother was Louis Sockalexis , a professional baseball player with the Cleveland Spiders. Cheryl left the children with the McDermott sisters.
The families are eccentric but happy and Esther has a secret about Eha’s father, which she carries with her.
Every June Matthew Diamond, a missionary, would arrive at his summer home on the mainland directly across from Apple Island. Diamond takes a boat from the mainland to the island, where he brings the islanders certain necessities and teaches the children in a small schoolhouse. Esther does not like or trust Diamond, “She believed…that no good ever came of being noticed by the mainlanders…The more good he tries to do, the more outside attention he‘ll bring, and that’s no good. No good at all.”
Soon enough, representatives of the state show up on Apple Island, along with doctors forcibly running tests on the islanders. Diamond knows trouble is coming and arranges for Ethan, a promising artist, to move to Massachusetts and live on a large property prior to going to art school. While living on the property in Massachusetts, Ethan befriends the house maid and you can imagine the rest.
Ultimately, the state evicts all of the residents and forces some of them into institutions…the same conclusion for Malaga Island.
Paul Harding is an excellent writer. The book is short, beautifully written and focuses on the unintended consequences of imposing one set of values on people who live by a different, harmless set of values. The novel was short listed for the 2023 National Book Award (Blackout by Jason Torres won) and the 2023 Booker Prize (won by Paul Lunch’s Prophet Song). You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on https://discover.cuyahogalibrary.org/Record/199603