“Margreete’s Harbor” begins in 1955, with a kitchen fire in coastal Maine. When the novel ends, in 1968, the United States is on fire: with protests against the Vietnam War, with women’s calls for liberation, with racist vitriol and violence and efforts to extinguish them. Across the 13 years spanning these conflagrations, the family at the center of Peaks Islander Eleanor Morse’s rather exquisite fourth novel finds that, even in the far reaches of Maine, it can be hard to hear grace notes above the roar of social turmoil.

Cover courtesy of MacMillan Publishers/St. Martins Press

After thrice-widowed Margreete Bright, who was born in 1893, accidentally sets her kitchen on fire, she telephones her Michigan-based daughter, Liddie, in one of her increasingly rare moments of lucidity; “I forgot something on the stove,” she admits. This isn’t the first time that Margreete’s forgetfulness has invited chaos. Unwilling to put her mother in a nursing home, Liddie moves back to Maine with her family and into Margreete’s house in Burnt Harbor. (“Kind of ironic,” Liddie’s husband, Harry, says of the name.) The move from Michigan, where Liddie has lived for eight years, is a professional sacrifice for her — she was first cellist in the Ann Arbor Symphony — and for her husband, who left a teaching job he loved at a junior high school. For their two young children, the move means giving up the only world they’ve ever known — nothing that some compensatory ice cream during their three-day one-way drive to Maine can’t offset.

With her roving point of view, Morse gives roughly equal time to each member of the household as everyone navigates the years, during which their interests evolve and their characters ossify. There’s Liddie, with her quicksilver anger and her frustration that her professional ambitions have been hobbled by her mother’s neediness. There’s Harry, whose idealism — he was a conscientious objector during World War II — is a bad match for Liddie cantankerousness, making a married woman’s interest in him all the more tantalizing. There’s morbid, animal-besotted Gretchen, Liddie and Harry’s unplanned third child; dreamer Eva, who has inherited her mother’s musical talent; and eldest child Bernie, who in third grade befriends new kid Noah, the first black person he has ever met, and later, as their friendship deepens, develops a crush on him.

And of course there’s Margreete, who tries doggedly to think clearly as her mental faculties fail her; “The thought disappeared every time she tried to pursue it,” she notes at one point, “like a dream running before her.” Morse intermittently supplies dialogues with Margreete that play like Abbott and Costello outtakes. Here’s an exchange with Liddie while the family watches scenes from the Vietnam War on the CBS Evening News:

“Why did they do that?” asked Margreete.
“I don’t know, Mom.”
“Why did they do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why are they doing that?”
“Mom. It’s a war. It doesn’t make any sense.”

It’s both a hallmark of “Margreete’s Harbor” and a feat of Morse’s daring that for all that’s going on in the larger world, not that much happens in and around Burnt Harbor. The odd catastrophe is averted. Events on the precipice of occurring — attendance at the March on Washington; a sexual assignation — lose their forward momentum for one reason or another. This gives “Margreete’s Harbor” its marvelous verisimilitude, although some readers may find it disappointing that the novel’s steady accretion of vignettes don’t add up to a traditional story line. For other readers, it will be enough that “Margreete’s Harbor” is shaped by the incendiary era that it’s submerged in, its quiet plot points sometimes turning on news items that lead to internal developments as earthshaking as the day’s headlines.

Nell Beram is a former Atlantic staff editor and coauthor of “Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies.” Her work has appeared recently in Bright Lights Film Journal, Salon, and Shelf Awareness.


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