Nagy, Estep. “We Shall Not All Sleep: A Novel” Bloomsbury, 2017.
Two Houses on One Island
In 1964, Seven Island off the coast of Maine was still wild and unspoiled. The only civilization were two houses built within compounds of outbuildings for summer vacations. One house belongs to the Hillsingers, the other to the Quicks. The two families’ ancestors have owned the island together since the times of the Revolution. By 1964, the families became even more closely intertwined by the marriages of the sons of both families to the Blackwell sisters – Bill Quick married Hannah and Jim Hillsinger married Lila. In the late spring of that year, the families for their annual visit, the Migration, and they are served by employees who take care everything.
The families arrive for three days of island activities, capped by the Migration and a dinner. Even though the families have become estranged at times, maybe this year will bring them together. However, the title of the book is an omen of what is to come.
Both families are affluent, and their histories are filled with foibles. There is Billy Quick’s investment fund with a questionable list of investors, his wife, Hannah’s early membership in a Communist group, which costs her a teaching job; Jim Hillsinger’s ouster from the CIA accused of treason, his wife, Lila’s affair with Billy Quick, Hannah’s suicide to escape a witch hunt, to name just a few. While the adults are sorting all of this out, and dealing with the ramifications, the various children are having a great time, except for Lila’s 12 year old son, Catta, who is the subject of disagreement between his parents. His father wants to abandon him on an outer island for a day to make “a man out of him”. The children run wild, playing violent games led by Catta’s sadistic older brother James. The island manager Cyrus and the servants take care of the families while preparing for the Migration, a yearly farming ritual that means one thing to their employers, and something very different to them.
With the adults, we see “longstanding tensions become tactical face-offs in which everything is fair game for ammunition”. This is a story of American class, family, and manipulation and a very compelling look at “a unique and privileged WASP stronghold on the brink of dissolution”. The story is good, the writing is beautiful and the characters are fascinating.
We read of CIA mole hunts, communist witch hunts and a world where we lived in cities before taking to the suburbs. If there is a basic theme here, I believe it is identifying and living up to the expectations that are set for us by society, our families, and ourselves and the results of not meeting those expectations. We also have the sub themes of betrayal, sacrifice and redemption.
The Quicks and the Hillsingers don’t particularly like each other, but who are also linked together by a shared family history and the joint ownership of a remote Maine archipelago and by marriage through the Blackwell sisters. Seven Island is a remote place with no phone service and there are three distinct groups on the island (the adults, the children, and the staff) and each group forms its own community of interests. And as long as each group acts within larger social ecosystem of the island (the adults eat and drink, the staff serve the adults and keep the island running, and the kids are largely seen and not heard), it is left to establish its own rules and traditions.
The descriptions of the islands are gorgeous especially Baffin Island which is mysterious and fascinating especially for Catta who is on his own journey of self-exploration.