Diann Ducharme's debut novel operates within a standard framework: an upper-class young woman spends a summer at the shore with her family and falls for a local boy, derailing her promising future with the wealthy doctor her parents want her to marry. Will she follow her duty or her heart?
The Outer Banks House falls into some stereotypical traps along the way, while stepping nimbly by others. Both a coming-of-age story and a romantic historical novel, its plot has a firm footing in its place and time. Adding period details with appropriate measure, Ducharme rounds out her characters' development by way of a secondary storyline involving the era's racial tensions, still raw three years after the Civil War.
In June of 1868, Abigail Sinclair's plantation-owner father brings his family from the North Carolina mainland to Nags Head, a small town on the barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. Their summer home, constructed by the Sinclairs' former field slaves over the past two seasons, is a precarious-looking wooden structure built on the sand at the ocean's edge. Abby, red-haired and freckled and seventeen, adores the seaside location and the fresh breezes flowing through the windows of their rustic cottage. Both she and it prove more resilient than the doubtful locals expect of them.
Abigail's father, a man who delights in killing animals for sport (never a good sign in a novel), hires Benjamin Whimble to be his guide to the best hunting and fishing spots. Nineteen-year-old Ben is good-natured and handsome, but filthy, smelly, and illiterate, and Abby recoils when her father asks her to teach him to read. Nonetheless, Abby and Ben grow closer as he learns his letters and they discuss Robinson Crusoe, the racial overtones of which had previously escaped Abby. Both are passionate about education, and their shared love for life comes through in exuberant scenes where they explore the islands together.
Various factors conspire to keep Abby and Ben apart. A blatant racist whose fortunes dwindled with the loss of the Confederacy, Mr. Sinclair has plans in mind for nearby Roanoke Island, and he uses Ben's poverty against him in his schemes. A number of black men, women, and children had settled on Roanoke during the war, and one in particular has a past he'd prefer to keep hidden.
Some characters are too lightly sketched in, while others hold surprises. Neither Abby's stuffy doctor beau, he with the "feminine quality about his lips," nor Ben's sour-tongued girlfriend Eliza stand a chance with their erstwhile partners, and Abby's bigoted dad comes straight from Central Casting. Her mother Ingrid, a Swedish immigrant's daughter stifled into wifely obedience, proves more complex than expected, however, and Abby and Ben have appealing and distinct narrative voices — even if Ben's folksy slang (lots of "I reckon" and "not a-tall") is laid on a bit thick. Both grow and change as the novel progresses, though after a while Abby seems to forget that Ben walks around everywhere barefoot and smelling like dead fish. Okay, that sounds crass. But still, I wondered about it.
Ducharme has a gift for writing quirky, colorful expressions, with the waves "sweetly lapping the shore like a cow licking salt" and Abby's long dress "whipping backwards like a yellow flag" in the wind as she stands atop the sand dunes. But despite the homey sense of place created by the language and seaside atmosphere, there's a grittier tale sitting beneath. One of the novel's most meaningful scenes involves the proud residents of Roanoke Island's Freedmen's Colony, and not only because it shows Abby's maturity more clearly than a tale of summertime romance could.
This would be a good read for the beach, both for those already there and those who wish they were. Although it ends at a satisfying point, some subplots remain unresolved. I'd enjoy reading a sequel should Ducharme decide to write one.
The Outer Banks House was published by Crown in June at $25.00 ($29.95 Canada).