Katy Simpson Smith hails from Jackson, Miss., but she’s ours now, serving as an adjunct professor at Tulane. Her debut novel, “The Story of Land and Sea” (HarperCollins) follows three generations of loss, love and faith around the time of the American Revolution along the North Carolina coast.
There’s unforgiving Asa, owner of the turpentine plantation who loses his wife in childbirth, and his headstrong daughter Helen who elopes with John, a man whose career spans piracy, soldiering and shopkeeping. John also experiences the death of his wife through childbirth and escapes to the sea when his ten-year-old daughter Tabitha contracts yellow fever. Rounding out the story is Moll, a slave bought as Helen’s companion who is married off against her will, bearing several children, including her beloved Davy who offers John a new beginning.
Smith chose Beaufort, N.C., as the book’s setting after being inspired by a gravesite there, and because of the town’s changing economic character. “The Revolution was coming to a close, but few people knew what a United States would look like,” she is quoted in the book’s press materials. “The town of Beaufort was in a period of decline, losing townspeople to larger cities as economic centers shifted. And the landscape itself was amorphous; on the coast, the land slides into the ocean in bands of marsh and swamp with few clear boundaries. This setting, then, was ideal for characters with similarly tenuous lives.”
“ ‘The Story of Land and Sea’ is the best novel I have read all year,” said best-selling author Anita Shreve. “The writing is word-perfect with its nearly biblical cadences, its taut and relentlessly spare sentences, and its unusually wise utterances, all of which contribute to the sheer joy that come from finding oneself in an imagined universe that feels as real as a splinter in a finger.”
We look forward to more novels from this impressive debut artist.Note: Smith is also the author of “We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835.”
Cheré Coen is the author of “Forest Hill, Louisiana: A Bloom Town History,” “Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana” and “Exploring Cajun Country: A Historic Guide to Acadiana” and co-author of “Magic’s in the Bag: Creating Spellbinding Gris Gris Bags and Sachets.” Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.