'The House on Salt Hay Road'

Calls LI home


Originally published: July 29, 2010 11:16 AM
Updated: July 29, 2010 11:40 AM
By TOM BEER tom.beer@newsday.com


by Carin Clevidence
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
285 pp.

Here's a different sort of beach read.

"The House on Salt Hay Road," set on Long Island's Great South Bay during the late 1930s, isn't the sort of breezy, featherweight entertainment we typically associate with the beach. But this lovely first novel by Carin Clevidence, who spent childhood summers at her grandparents' house on Long Island, captures the feel of life, both natural and human, along the coast in the days before suburban sprawl. Reading it, you can almost taste the clean, salty air of the South Shore.

"The House on Salt Hay Road" centers on a small, fractured family in the fictional town of Fire Neck whose members each nurse private griefs: two orphaned children who have come to live with their mother's relations, a middle-age aunt abandoned years earlier by a deceitful husband, a bachelor uncle whose boyhood love was killed in an automobile accident on the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, a grandfather who spent his life rescuing people at sea and is still haunted by the ones who drowned.

The story begins in 1937, when an explosion at the local fireworks factory disrupts life in Fire Neck. Twelve-year-old Clayton Poole imagines that the "Huns" have bombed Long Island. His grandfather, Scudder, is awakened by the noise that sounds to his ears like a ship run aground. Clayton's 19-year-old sister, Nancy, races on horseback to the lodge where their Aunt Mavis works as a domestic, and there meets a young stranger from Boston. Yes, romance does ensue.

But that romance - though it does set in motion the novel's minimal plot - isn't exactly the point. Clevidence is more concerned with charting the geography of this unspoiled setting, the Great South Bay, at this moment before everything changed, as well as the emotional geographies of her characters as they navigate the losses brought on by time and love.

Clevidence's prose is, like the place she writes about, simple and precise. Here she describes the bay as Clay sees it, after taking a job as a "scapper" - scooping crabs out of the water with a net - aboard a fishing boat:

"The sun had come out from behind the clouds and the water shone. Out on the bay a white powerboat touched its reflection as it bounced along. The hull and its image met and parted, met and parted, cutting the water like a pair of shears."

The white clapboard house of the title is itself a part of the coastal landscape and is frequently likened to a boat. Indeed, we learn that the house was originally built in East Moriches, bought at auction by Scudder's father and floated down the Terrell River, into the bay and along the shore; Scudder remembers thinking, as a boy, how "strange the silhouette of it seemed, like a boat built by someone with no understanding of water or wind." In its final resting place on Salt Hay Road, "the house absorbed the smells of salt marsh and mud and waterlogged pine." Later we're told that looking out the window of his upstairs room at night, Clayton could see bonfires on the distant beach of Fire Island, "and the sight had made him feel like a sailor on a ship at sea, glimpsing the lights of a port along the horizon."

Human desires and longings are dwarfed by the capriciousness and the power of Nature. The novel's climax - and its most dramatic set piece - is the Great Hurricane of 1938, which catches this little community unawares, inflicting extraordinary damage.

"Walking home on the east shore of the river, Clayton counted more than 20 boats stranded on the marsh or caught in the trees. He took the shortcut over the railroad bridge. The track was strewn with branches. Once he had to clamber around a large, waterlogged sofa. Seaweed hung from the pitch pines." Suffice it to say that nothing will again be the same for Clayton, Nancy, Mavis, Roy and Scudder - or for the others who make their homes and livings along the South Shore. "The House on Salt Hay Road" is an evocation of, and an elegy for, that bygone way of life.

Note from Shelly Stiefeld:

BHS Alumnae Carin Clevindence has published her first novel  "The House on Salt Hay Road."  It is the story of a family living in a south shore community that borders on the Great South Bay in 1937-38 and their relationships with each other and their surroundings.  It may be very familiar to many.  Carin is Dennis Puleston's granddaughter and many teachers may remember her.   For more information go to Amazon.

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