This Other Eden

Paul Harding


Eugenics is best known today as the Nazi justification for the Holocaust and yet from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century a belief in eugenics had a profound impact on the United States. The belief that the human race can be improved through selective breeding was inspired by Darwin's theories of natural selection but got its real traction in the fertile grounds of racism. Eugenics is scientific racism.

In 1912, in the Jim Crow era and in the midst of intense interest in eugenics, the state of Maine evicted the residents of Malaga Island, a settlement of mixed-race descendants of former slaves, and incarcerated some in the Maine School for the Feebleminded. Paul Harding 's novel, "This Other Eden" uses this historical event as a way to discuss racism, notions of white supremacy and white guilt. And yet, despite the subject matter, this is a lyrical, almost dream like novel replete with Biblical imagery of both Eden and the Exodus. Harding focuses as much on what a world without racism might look like as he does on the tragedies caused by our innate bigotry.

In "This Other Eden", former slave Benjamin Honey and his Irish wife Patience settle on an island off the coast of Maine in 1792. They name their new home Apple Island. Over time they are joined by other settlers, both Black and white, to form a small, isolated community. The group is poor and often hungry and yet protected from the bigotry of the mainland. By 1912, the island is home to the Honeys, the McDermotts and the Lark families, in addition to Zachary Hand to God Proverbs and Annie Parker and the Sockalexis children. The other more recent part time resident on the island is the do-gooder Matthew Diamond, a white missionary who comes over from the mainland every summer to teach the children. While his intentions are good, he is the catalyst that focuses the attention of the outside world on Apple Island and dooms them. This motley community of eccentrics is drawn in nuanced and loving detail as is the natural world they inhabit.

Harding's story focuses on the Honey family and particularly on young Ethan Honey who is a gifted artist and the member of the community most able to "pass" as white. In an attempt to mitigate some of the damage he has done, Matthew Diamond tries to "save" Ethan by finding him a place at an art college. But for a young man born in a community with no racial self-consciousness, the unwritten rules of 20th century America are dangerous pitfalls.

"This Other Eden" is an unexpectedly beautiful if tragic novel which offers a glimpse of what a world without our artificial constructs of race and class might look like. Shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, a finalist for the 2023 National Book Award and a slew of other recognitions, this is a book well worth a read.