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The Story of Land and Sea opens with young Tabitha contracting yellow fever on her tenth birthday. Her father and grandfather, having already lost her mother in childbirth, are desperate to save her despite the limitations of 18th century medicine. Her father takes to the sea with her in tow, thinking that the sea air will cure her. After all, he took her mother to the sea when they first married and she blossomed into the woman he loved with all his heart.
Flashing back 20 years, Tabitha’s mother Helen is a young girl receiving her first slave on her tenth birthday. Helen is a serious, bossy soul, teaching the neighborhood slaves on Sunday and becoming perfectly poised to take the reins of her father’s turpentine business. And then she meets a soldier.
Hmm. That story I just described is exciting and I’d like to read it. This book is not that book. This book is much more Literary-with-a-capital-L. Instead of the action-y love story I was hoping for, I found a book that explores the holes that grief leaves in the lives of those left behind. It is well-written but I somehow felt removed from the story. I didn’t feel like I really knew any of the characters; I only knew their grief.
The book does have a strong sense of place, which is what I was hoping for. I’m a North Carolina girl and we always spent our summer vacations on the coast when I was growing up. I was really excited when I realized that the book is set in Beaufort. We always spent a day exploring the town, eating ice cream at the marina, checking out the maritime museum, and choosing which yacht would be ours if we ever won the lottery. This post-Revolutionary War Beaufort is strangely colorless. It’s hot and muggy, as it should be, but it’s so hot that all the color has been bleached from the town. I can’t describe it better than that.
There are definitely readers who will enjoy this, and they’ll be readers who like their books to be more Literary and thoughtful than I generally do. Despite the beautiful writing, this really wasn’t the book for me.
Thanks to the publisher for giving me a copy of the book for review.
Read an excerpt.
Find author Katy Simpson Smith on her website.
Buy The Story of Land and Sea at
I have an affiliate relationship with Malaprop’s, my local independent bookstore located in beautiful downtown Asheville, NC; and Better World Books. I will receive a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase books through links on my site. My opinions are completely my own.