The Working Waterfront

Marital tension, island-style


Tina Cohen
Posted 2020-09-16
Last Modified 2020-10-04

Kate Hotchkiss of North Haven has a novel just out, coming at an opportune time when coronavirus has complicated travel and minimized social activities.

Reading On Harbor’s Edge: Book One, 1912-1913 could be a relaxing, self-isolated way to enjoy the Maine coast, whether in person or vicariously. Set on islands with fictional names in a fictitious Silver Bay, the story begins with our heroine, Mildred May Combs, just wed to Thaddeus Gale, whom she had met only seven months earlier.

You could call him persistent or a predator—he literally went cruising for a wife, coming by boat from his home on Popplestone Island to Crescent Island five times. Five times he told Mildred to marry him, saying she was needed on Popplestone; because, he said, they “need babies right quick.”

More children were essential to the community’s survival and Thaddeus had taken that task upon himself. He was a rough and rugged man, maybe ten years older than her, a lobsterman by trade, with a family home now his own on Hale Harbor’s edge.

Mildred was booksmart and proper, although not delicate or timid. Procuring a job for her as schoolteacher for the island’s handful of children was, to Thaddeus’ mind, what could keep her happy. She could work there all day, take care of him and the house, and produce babies—maybe ten if lucky!

The post-vows opening scene effectively anticipates the couple’s life together. There is no romance. Thaddeus is able to satisfy his need; here, bringing a wife to Popplestone.

What would please Mildred—here, closure saying goodbye to family and friends—is ignored. Their hasty departure from Crescent Island requires Mildred to unceremoniously wade over rocks through water to climb into Thaddeus’ peapod boat he’d row back. Mildred’s bridal dress is ripped in the process.

Then, the rough sea, and perhaps anxiety, make her sick to her stomach. After retching in the boat, Thaddeus snarls, “Making a mess of my fishing boat, Mildred.”

Finally, approaching Hale Harbor, he points out his home, with Victorian-style details. She admires it, saying it reminded her of the beautiful wedding cake they left behind. Thaddeus, who had refused to bring any of it along in the boat, answers “it would have slopped all over.”

Readers will not wonder for long if tenderness possibly hides under his callousness. He may shine in a lobster boat—tough and tenacious—but not in a marriage bed.

Halfway through the book, with its threads of dark subplots, my mind had rearranged the title to On Edge on the Harbor. Perhaps it is no surprise that Popplestone, a small, isolated and remote community with competition in lobstering, would experience tension and conflict both inside families and between families. Mildred—at least in this first volume of a projected series—finds ways to fit in. She is plucky, kind, and resilient; she makes a few alliances in the community and is respected for her work with the children. Just as important, she makes a lobster chowder unrivaled by that of anyone else on the island.

In many ways, this book is in the genre of romance novel, but Thaddeus as the object of desire is a tough fit. He’s emotionally abusive to his partner. What will happen with the addition of children?

Mildred makes a deal with Thaddeus at the end of this volume, one she thinks will improve her standing in their relationship. The question of how or if they stay married leaves us awaiting the book’s sequel. And I have another question I hope gets an answer. Hey, Kate Hotchkiss: what is that recipe, please, for such an impressive lobster chowder?

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Tina Cohen is a seasonal resident of Vinalhaven.