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This Other Eden: A Novel

Paul Harding
Published by W. W. Norton & Company in 2023

Every now and then a novelist comes along whose unique voice grips us from the first page—Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, Brian Doyle come quickly to mind for me—and now I’ll add Paul Harding, who, in This Other Eden, hooks us from the first paragraph with a description of an island so vivid it isn’t until the last sentence of the novel that you can let yourself float away.

Having received the Pulitzer Prize for Tinkers, which also showcases Harding’s love of nature and his gift for describing it, this latest novel was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Booker Prize. It’s not surprising that not only did he graduate from the Iowa Writers Workshop, but that he was also a student of Marilynne Robinson. It shows.

Harding’s historical novel takes place on Apple Island, a fictional name for Malaga Island, about 300 feet off the coast of Maine, where a young couple named Benjamin and Patricia Honey settle in 1793, the lone inhabitants of an island of just under 42 acres. Patricia is from Glasgow, Scotland, and Benjamin—“American, Bantu, Igbo”—was born enslaved and either “freed or fled” (11). Benjamin Honey arrives with seeds and a will to create an apple orchard reminiscent of the one named Eden from his childhood. While the sad events of Malaga Island have been documented and fictionalized before, Harding combines key facts from that history with an imagined  cast of characters so human and a story so real that the knowledge of looming tragedy, as it does with Shakespeare’s iambic spoiler in the opening lines of Romeo and Juliet, only deepens our longing for a world where against all odds, love wins.

After the brief historical note, the novel begins in 1911, with Esther Honey, the great-granddaughter of Benjamin and Patience, enduring a late-winter snowstorm on Apple Island with her son and her own grandchildren. She is somewhere around 100 years old and, as entertainment during the storm, the grandkids beg her to tell them once again the story of the hurricane that hit the island when she was a child. Harding’s prose soars through Esther’s telling:

When the wall of ocean hit, it tore half the trees and all the houses off the island, guzzling everything down, along with two Honeys, three Proverbs, one of the Penobscot sisters, three dogs, six cats, and a goat named Enoch. The hurricane roared so loudly Patience Honey thought she’d gone deaf at first, that is, until she heard the tidal mountain avalanching toward them, bristling with houses and ships and trees and people and cows and horses churning inside it, screaming and bursting and lowing and neighing and shattering and heading right for the island (16).

It’s here where Harding first connects to the post-Eden Biblical flood: “Noah had his ark. The Honeys had Apple Island” (23).

It doesn’t take long for Harding to describe the life on Apple Island in 1911 as another Eden, a close community of three families and a couple of single eccentrics, who know who they are and know how to love, though they must struggle to stay alive through hunger and poverty and the extremes of nature. Such a small but close community, and yet, over a century of generations, these current residents have blood in their veins “from every continent but Antartica…no matter what shade their skin” (42). These variations of skin color and what they suggest of incest play a role, of course, in how the people of the island struggle to coexist with the mainlanders.

And yet, it is Eden they inhabit and with a sort of innocence before the Fall.  One day, Esther Honey watches as her grandchildren come back to the island during a low tide, one of them Charlotte, needing to be rescued by their big dog Grizzly. She sees her grandson Ethan helping them out of the water: “He was so good to them. And they were good to him. Love, pure and simple. None of them gave a thought yet to what people beyond the island saw as their polluted blood” (81). This pure love the islanders have for each other is a recurring parallel to the inevitable racism to come. 

Still, it is the arrival of the kind-hearted missionary-teacher that Esther, who has survived encounters with mainlanders for nearly a century, fears most. She believes that “no good ever came of being noticed by mainlanders, which always meant being noticed by white people” (42). His name is Matthew Diamond, a white man from New England who visits every summer. Eventually he and Eha, a skilled carpenter, build a school that the children dutifully attend each day. They read Hamlet (a play alluded to in several passages), study geometry, learn stories from the Bible. One child understands Latin so quickly it was “as if she were not learning it but remembering it” (46). Another takes to geometry so well that the teacher has to study it himself just to keep challenging her. Eha’s son Ethan emerges as an artistic prodigy, whose paintings Harding describes as a skillful poet can. Of one of Ethan’s portraits, Harding writes, 

The girl was placed on the left part of the canvas. Behind her on the right were fields and haycocks and the high horizon full of light and clouds, a veil of rain sweeping past and, nearer, thick, matted bright and shadowed grass and long looped thorned vines and Queen Anne’s lace and delicate fanning ferns and, almost without substance, dim at the edge of the coarse heavy dark grass directly behind the girl, a strawberry plant with a mass of shadowed green fruit (138). 

However, proud as she is of the children’s skills, Esther Honey has lived too long to be fooled by a white man’s good intentions. Of Matthew Diamond she concludes, “The more good he tries to do, the more outside attention he’ll bring, and that’s no good. No good at all” (42).

Harding inserts brief historical notes throughout his story of Apple Island, and it is these notes that help foreshadow the ending. One describes the meeting of the First International Congress on Eugenics where Darwin’s son, Major Leonard Darwin, “spoke of the dangers of interfering with Nature’s ways. He said all the gathered men must pledge aloud that to give themselves to the satisfaction of succoring their neighbor in distress—without at the same time considering the effects likely to be produced by their charity on future generations—was to say the least weakness and folly” (44). That their racism is fueled by foolish science makes it feel all the more wicked.

The novel proceeds with parallel moments of great beauty and deep tragedy. Another Eden briefly flourishes on the mainland when one of the departed Apple Islanders meets a young servant from an island off of Ireland’s coast. A gravedigger scene echoing Hamlet’s “to what base uses we may return” reminds us of how racism desecrates human dignity. Yet, when a pregnant, orphan girl arrives at Apple Island for succor, Esther reflects, “Here is another arrival—this girl, this child—ripening with her own body the seed of another arrival, another child, each and every life comprehensive, each peculiar, each priceless, and each less than the shadow of a shadow, all cherished or despised, celebrated or aggrieved, memorialized or forgotten” (185). She understands at her core what Jesus tried to teach us and what science alone cannot: each life matters, each deserves love.

In his inimitable way the late preacher William Sloane Coffin of Riverside Church in New York City often tweaked Descartes’ famous maxim in his sermons, proclaiming, “I love, therefore I am.” It’s a truth Christians, of all people, should champion. It’s a truth we need gifted writers like Paul Harding to embody for us again and again in their stories. 

Because in a world ravaged by racism, it’s love like Esther Honey’s that we’re called to,  and it’s Apple Island we long for.

Mark Hiskes

Mark Hiskes is a retired high school English teacher from Holland, Michigan, who devotes his time to a number of things: two delightful grandchildren, Sylvie and Paige; his wonderful wife, Cindy, with whom he rebuilds and refurbishes old furniture for sale in her antique booth; reading ever more great books, ancient, old, and new; and doing his best to write poetry, stories, and essays that might, God willing, tell some manner of truth.


  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Mark, back in another day when we taught together, you recommended books such as A River Runs Through It, The Brothers K, and the sweet book The Human Comedy, which we included in freshman English. All of which were sublime—and so I look forward to reading Harding’s novel, on your recommendation.
    You caught my attention with the description of the youngster taking to Latin so quickly it was as if remembering the language, not learning something new; I have encountered similar students—immigrants, refugees, from all of Earth’s curves—who have taken to English similarly in our community college’s ESL programs.
    You made two Shakespeare references; I’d add in passing a nod to The Tempest, or perhaps recognition of ” a brave new world” as well as an Eden revisited.
    Thanks–can’t wait to read!

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Nice going, Mark! Now another book will land on my floor halfway to ceiling stack of wanna reads. However, I am of course grateful and ever thankful for your authentic voice that speaks out from your exquisite writing.

    • Dana VanderLugt says:

      Echoing, Jack! Wonderful to hear your voice, and added to my to-read pile!

    • Jeff Carpenter says:

      HIs nephew Jonathan Hiskes reviewed Sun House back in November; Duncan’s novel is first in the queue (as soon as my wife finishes reading it) before taking on Harding’s. :?)

  • Sara Tolsma says:

    I just added this to my Goodreads “to read” list. Thanks!