Judicial Review #10: Discussing the Point of Elizabeth Graver’s “The End of the Point”

What is a Judicial Review? It is a fresh approach to creating a conversational, critical space about the arts and culture. This session discusses Elizabeth Graver’s new novel The End of the Point, a multi-generational story about the trials and tribulations of a family that takes place between 1942 and 1999 in Ashaunt Point, a fictional beach community on Massachusetts’ seacoast.

Introduction by Bill Marx, Editor

Elizabeth Graver‘s novel takes place at a place out of time, Ashaunt Point—a tiny finger of land jutting into Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts—that has provided sanctuary and anchored life for generations of the Porter family, who summer along its remote, rocky shore. But in 1942, the U.S. Army arrives on the Point, bringing havoc and change. That summer, the two older Porter girls—teenagers Helen and Dossie—run wild. The children’s Scottish nurse, Bea, falls in love. And youngest daughter Janie is entangled in an incident that cuts the season short and haunts the family for years to come.

As the decades pass, Helen and then her son Charlie return to the Point, seeking refuge from the chaos of rapidly changing times. But Ashaunt is not entirely removed from events unfolding beyond its borders. Neither Charlie nor his mother can escape the long shadow of history—Vietnam, the bitterly disputed real estate development of the Point, economic misfortune, illness, and tragedy.

Graver’s detailed narrative explores the interactions—emotional and social—between family dynamics and place, the way that love of home sets limits and engenders possibilities.

Majority Opinion: The judges were impressed by how the ambition and range of The End of the Point was accented by an “intimacy that lends real ballast to a story that could so easily have become banal.” One found Graver’s language to be “elegant and brisk and funny, polished and then abruptly raw. The language mirrors the place, which, depending on the season or weather can be incandescently lovely or bruised and exposed. But it is also beautiful because of its narrative confidence: it leaps through time and form, with great, assured strides.”

Minority Opinion: One judge found the characters to be unsympathetic and was irritated by the author’s urge to share her wealth of research, sometimes at the expense of the dynamics of the story. Another felt that “some of this novel is too ‘told’ rather than ‘shown,’ some of the prose seems a little rushed.”

— Bill Marx, Editor, The Arts Fuse

Judge #1

Roberta Silman

Roberta Silman

I had never read anything by Elizabeth Graver until now, and, to be honest, the thought of reading a multi-generational novel about a WASP family very attached to a summer compound on a peninsula in Buzzards Bay seemed a bit “old.” Moreover, the many blurbs and good reviews all made so much of the sense of place that I was not prepared to read a book where the people do matter so much, in the end.

But, I am happy to report, that Graver has written a novel about family relationships with an almost ruthless honesty; moreover, her story has some interesting twists, as well as beautiful descriptions of the natural world and a large cast of characters. Indeed, her range and control of her material gives The End of the Point a true epic sweep that goes from 1942 to 1999 yet also an intimacy that lends real ballast to a story that could so easily have become banal.

The Porters arrive at their beloved Ashaunt for the summer in the midst of the War only to find that “The Army had paved the road.” But instead of filtering all the changes through the eyes of the father, crippled from a debilitating disease and now wheelchair bound, or the rather cold mother, who is trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy even though her oldest child and only boy, Charlie, is now flying planes for the Air Force, Graver’s narrator is Bea, the devoted nanny for the youngest child Jane. There are two other children in the family, Helen, who is 16 in 1942 and Dossy, who is 14 and her older sister’s shadow.

An intelligent Scotswoman of 36, Bea has a back story of her own; more important, she is attentive to the nuances of family life, as well as her own weaknesses and strengths. As we watch her engage with an Army Sergeant named Smitty with whom she might have made a life, we are at first alarmed, then exasperated, and finally enlightened when we realize that her seemingly simple life is a lot more complicated than it at first appeared. In creating Bea, Graver has addressed one of the subjects that has always fascinated me—the intense love that can grow between caregiver and child, especially in a family as well-heeled and careless and buttoned up as this one. And how, in the midst of such intimacy, other feelings take hold—visceral feelings that have lives of their own.

Here Bea is, much later in the book, remembering Mr. P., now dead:

[He] used to ask her to get [the compass] for him sometimes, to hold it in her palm or set it in his. He’d taught her how to turn the outside dial until it matched up with true north and then move the base plate until it pointed toward Gaga’s dock (which she’d not had put back in the water this season), or Scotland, or New York. Where, he would ask her, would you like to go today? He had loved geography and maps, to watch the needle wobble in his hand. That she’d half fallen in love with him over the long course of years was a plain fact to her as her name was a fact, as her body (which she cleaned and fed and otherwise generally ignored) was.

The compass in the passage above is going to be a gift for Charlie, Mr. P’s grandson and the oldest child of Helen, a young man who grows up during the Vietnam War, is not a particularly good student, ends up at college in Ohio (not far from Kent State when the catastrophe there occurs), and gets involved with drugs. Now home, he is perceived by his grandmother as “a boy who had everything and thought he had nothing? Who dressed like a tramp and left his own and other peoples bicycles and tools in the rain and had been living here on his own, no job, no course of study, no plan, as far as she knew, of any kind.”

In Charlie’s relationship with his grandmother and his parents, Helen and her Swiss doctor husband, we see Graver at her most daring—exploring the parent-child relationship when everything is poised to go wrong. What Grandma—called Gaga—doesn’t understand is that she is part of Charlie’s problem, that she was an absent mother to Helen whose letters and diaries dominate a huge section of the book from 1947–61 and that her behavior helped spawn her daughter: a shallow, self-centered, immature woman trying to carve out a life of her own, marrying a Swiss doctor, having four children, and honing her skills as a master of a particular kind of parental neglect that masquerades as high expectations that, if unfulfilled, become destructive beyond measure. When her oldest son Charlie is absolutely down and out at college,

His parents never came to Cleveland. The Midwest wasn’t on their map, nor was a son in his particular condition. They sent money, called with names of prominent doctors (could any doctor in Ohio really be prominent in their eyes). . . “We’ve had five days of rain here when I’d so prefer snow,” his mother wrote in her oddly girlish hand, like a pen pal from a foreign country. And, in the same round handwriting, in the same letter: “Is it over yet? It must be over now, promise me, you’ll never do it again.”

We all know such awful clueless mothers of sons like Charlie, but it takes real courage to give such a woman so much of the stage. And although I found myself despising Helen, I cared enough for Charlie to root for him and see him struggle and grow and change and ultimately find his place in the world.

Some of this novel is too “told” rather than “shown,” some of the prose seems a little rushed, and I was puzzled by the fact that even though an understandable whiff of anti-Semitism hovers over this book, no one says a word when Charlie gets married under a chuppah.

But these are small complaints. In the end, I admire Graver’s ambition and was impressed as the story gained urgency towards the end, when an oil spill taints the peninsula as Helen struggles—more bravely than I might have expected—with terminal illness. I also admired Graver’s insistence on continuing Bea’s tale into old age—not as “help” who grow into blurry memory over time but as a real presence in this family’s life whose loyalty to her is as moving as hers to them and whose attachment to her home and country rounds out the importance of place in all our lives.

Roberta Silman is the author of Blood Relations, a story collection; three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again; and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. She writes regularly for The Arts Fuse and can be reached at rsilman@verizon.net.

Judge #2

Charlotte Bacon

Charlotte Bacon

I come to The End of the Point at a curious angle. I know Elizabeth, and we have a lovely, word-sprung friendship that’s unfolded in the setting she brings to life in her novel, the land she calls Ashaunt. It is as she describes it: a place that breeds nostalgia, for this “old house, this old couch, this old tribe.” Tribes to which neither she nor I, at heart, belong. She has married into a family that has history and one of those old houses there. I have acquired that access as the stepdaughter of another family with such a claim. This, too: we’re writers, trained watchers, and talkers, people who test and share what we observe, teasing an intuition into reality through conversation. And this point, this low and gorgeous spit of land with its Indian past and the deep privilege of its summery present, calls out the need to name and know it.

Yet what’s the line between trespass and Trespass as she writes in the final pages? Again, in Elizabeth’s words, what’s private and what’s Private? The book is much more than an evocation through a range of characters of a particularly haunting mile of earth. Yes, The End of the Point is a novel with a crackling set of wonderfully observed characters whose shards of story collide to create a shimmering, refracted vision of the myriad ways it is possible to know, love, and change a landscape. It succeeds as a story because its people are so sharply made and told and its language is so specifically attuned to each moment, to each person who anchors each fragment of the book. The pieces combine to make us remember how much land, the earth beneath our feet, matters. To see Elizabeth elevate Ashaunt to a setting that is character and to make characters who cannot be understood without their setting is to be reminded of these old, necessary, and potent connections. Here, the weave between place and people is complete and entirely satisfying.

But her novel is also this: an investigation into the limits of what a writer permits herself to do when her material hews close to her own history. The End of the Point is also novel about what’s allowed to be in a novel. What I can glimpse because I know the place, its conventions, and some of its guardians, is Elizabeth’s bravery in seizing this story. She has quietly, over years, and with, I would argue, great compassion, asserted her right to shape, re-frame, and guide the characters she has heard about and known. She has taken them and the place and created a narrative that darts and twists through time and voice, from World War II and Scottish nannies to the 1970s and to now, through men and women, owners and the dispossessed.

The result is a mosaic that hovers above what are bound to be other people’s versions of what happened and what mattered. Ashaunt is also a place where people whisper stories. Fragments of gossip or loss, moves, and marriages are exchanged on the dock, during a swim in the strangely warm ocean, on the deck of a boat, a shell-strewn strip of beach. People there will talk about what she got “right” and whose portrait is most accurate. They will insist that it’s real, the way readers often make the error of combing, say, Louise Erdrich, for a “true” portrait of native life. They will read, in short, anthropologically, and in doing so make a mistake: forgetting that Erdrich and Elizabeth belong to one of the slyest of tribes, those fiction writers, people who can twist a story out of the air, people who see in narrative a way to shape and frame and capture a world.

That’s not to say that Elizabeth hasn’t taken real risks, social ones that could alter or fracture friendship and family. Why did she feel the need to tell this story about these people? The answer’s one of the humblest and most basic, I sense. It’s an intensely elegant claim to the primacy of story, the need to tell a story as well and deeply as possible despite the kind of conventions that govern the lives of families who own and steer the Point.

Fiction writers live between layers in the world and our usefulness is curious, more effective as commentary than as action. Our work doesn’t change laws, solve poverty, cure illness. Our art’s effects are glancing and perceived as an escape from what what’s real. But if we can’t change History (minus exceptions such as Harriet Beecher Stowe), we can change history, the interiors of people’s experiences. The furniture in readers’ minds is rearranged by thoughts, words, stories. What people hold in their heads does affect their perceptions and that of course changes everything they touch, say, know, do, the fragments of experience through which we all participate in the workings of the world.

To finish, a confession, made as well by a writer whose highest allegiance is to story and the way that thrusts me to the edges of worlds, not quite in them, not quite of them. When Elizabeth asked me to read this novel, I almost balked. Our relationship’s not virtual; I don’t “like” her “like” her, I like her like her. We’ve walked with our dogs the beaches that she brings to life in her book, talking faster than anyone else, stories layering themselves upon the sand. Our children climb and lose themselves in dunes. We’ve spent Labor Day evenings cooking the last scraps of the summer’s food over beach fires as the light on the ocean tilts from gold to red then black.

But I said yes, and we agreed, writers’ eyes wide open, that I would have to tell the truth about what I read. Then this happened: I opened the novel and fell immediately into the story, the way you fall into an unknown country, a new city. Ensnared and rapt, I forgot Elizabeth and our friendship. I forgot her dog and children. I forgot my own history with the land she calls Ashaunt. The narrative generated a potent, tidal force that drew me toward and away from the characters, the time frames they lived in and the place across which they walked, which unfurled in their minds, even when they weren’t there.

An aerial view of Mishaum Point

It is so beautiful, this book, but what does the beauty stem from? The language, of course, which is elegant and brisk and funny, polished and then abruptly raw. The language mirrors the place, which, depending on the season or weather can be incandescently lovely or bruised and exposed. But it is also beautiful because of its narrative confidence: it leaps through time and form, with great, assured strides. It assumes an epistolary form, then a diary’s, and includes perspectives as diverse as a nanny’s to a troubled, young college student’s, each of them fragmentary, convincing, necessary.

In short, Elizabeth has stepped past the Private Beach and looked at the privacy of the lives in a place she knows and emerged with a novel that’s a whirling gem, life-driven and vibrant past the edges of bindings. She has brought to life on the page a place in a time of placelessness and virtual hum, where what’s more real is a shimmering set of pixels and not the freckled, bony hand that wings across a keyboard. She’s insisted on the writer’s right to describe, invent, polish, and shift, engaging in Trespass and in so doing re-created this place’s histories.

I imagine that readers who don’t know Ashaunt will still be curious about who she is, what’s “real” below the surface of the book. For some readers, it’s always personal. Not only do they want to meet the writers of the books they buy, they want to wring out fact from the fiction, demand an accounting for the characters, the plot, the cover. Faced with dwindling interest in their wares, writers now are asked, by publishers and public, to engage in a gawky dance of friendliness with their audience. To cultivate an almost aggressive openness or what I heard one writer call “entrepreneurial narcissism.” Readers ask, we answer, from an airplane, hotel, kitchen, or bedroom. We post; we Skype to woo and convince the world that we’re real; we care; we’re here. It’s intimacy whipped up with the whisk of a cursor, the flash of a photo, the bleat of a tweet.

But I would urge readers of this book to simply read it. Lose themselves inside its world, its people, and the old magic of a good story, a tumble of ink across a page that incredibly creates coherence. Bring it on a hot day to the ocean, and when you look up from the page, sit inside the glittering strangeness of not knowing precisely what you’re seeing. Your beach, hers. Your sand or Elizabeth’s. Let yourself linger there, with her people sifting through your mind. It’s an amazing place, full of dreamy expansiveness, receptivity, tiny but significant mental shifts. It’s a state I’d call art.

Charlotte Bacon is the author of five works of fiction. Her first, a collection of stories called A Private State, won the PEN/Hemingway Award. She published three novels with Farrar, Straus and Giroux: Lost Geography (2000), There is Room for You (2004), and Split Estate (2008) and her latest novel, The Twisted Thread, came out in 2011 with Hyperion. A former English professor at the University of New Hampshire, she has lived and taught in Bali and in Bhutan and now lives in Maine with her husband and three children.

Judge #3

Debby Waldman

Debby Waldman

Of the many beautiful passages in Elizabeth Graver’s new novel, one that really struck me is one of the most simple: “Time stands still here. Clocks break. So do telephones. Postage stamps lose their stick.” It’s a sums-it-up passage, told from the point of view of Helen Porter, who is a free-spirited and often obnoxious 16-year-old when the story begins in 1942. By the time she has her epiphany, nearly 60 years later, she has matured into a dignified grandmother and matriarch.

“Here” is fictional Ashaunt Point, a narrow spit of land off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Helen’s parents and grandparents owned summer houses that have been or are in the process of being passed on to the next generations. Graver’s novel follows the Porters from the summer that World War II upends their lives, through the Vietnam era that stains their lives, and on to the cusp of the millennium when very little in their lives resembles what they once knew—very little, that is, except for Ashaunt Point.

Time doesn’t really stand still on Ashaunt Point. Oceanfront property within easy driving distance of major cities is prime real estate, especially when those who settled it offer parcels for sale. As the twentieth century draws to a close, Ashaunt Point is no longer the exclusive provenance of Social Register families and their heirs and spares; there are strangers, new owners and renters, people who couldn’t have dreamed of a place on the Point back in the day when families like the Porters made the trek from New Jersey with their servants and nannies in tow.

Still, Helen’s sentiment will make sense to anyone who has had a profound attachment to a particular landscape: the land becomes a part of you. New houses go up, old ones are torn down, a field turns into a golf course or a shopping mall, a footpath into a highway, but part of that unspoiled original will always be trapped deep in your DNA, and it will remain the same as when you first saw and experienced it.

The sense of being anchored to a place is what resonated so strongly for me, in large part because the fictional Ashaunt Point is located near New Bedford, where my father grew up, and less than an hour from Cape Cod, where I spent most of my childhood summers. I know those postage stamps that that lose their stick, and I miss them. For the past 20 years, I’ve lived in Alberta, Canada (a province that humidity has yet to discover), 2700 miles from my beloved Massachusetts. I can identify with Helen and her son Charlie. I understand what it feels like to come alive when you’re in a place like Ashaunt and how, when you’re not there, a part of you falls dormant.

As with any story that follows a family through generations, The End of the Point boasts a large cast. Graver has done an impressive job juggling her characters, focusing the right amount of limelight on each one. The characters who claim the most real estate in terms of page allotment are Helen, Charlie, and the nanny Bea, who emigrates from Scotland in the 1930s, is hired to take care of Helen’s baby sister, Janie, and stays with the family until Janie herself is a married mother of six. But even the minor characters seem major, and among the most major are Bea’s fellow Scots nanny, Agnes, and Helen’s closest-in-age sister, Dossy, whose roles are relatively small but crucial (rather like that of Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables but without the overdose of emoting).

I was nervous about reading The End of the Point. I’m always nervous to read a book by a friend, and Elizabeth Graver has been a friend since we met as students at Cornell University in 1990. I want to love my friends’ books, but if I don’t, I’m in trouble because I’m not a good liar. Also, when blurbers (blurbists?) start tossing around such superlatives as “epic,” “enormously moving,” “magnificent,” and “uncommonly fine,” as do the folks whose blurbs cover the back of The End of the Point, my skeptic-ometer goes nuts. There’s no way a book could be all that, I tell myself. It’s just the writer’s friends cashing in on favors.

And so I was thrilled to love this book as much as I did, not just because, let’s face it, who wants to spend hours reading a lousy book? I was thrilled because I can safely, honestly, say that The End of the Point truly is all that.

Debby Waldman has reviewed books for People Magazine, Publishers Weekly, and The Edmonton Journal. She is the author of the picture books A Sack Full of Feathers, Clever Rachel, and Room Enough for Daisy (the latter with Rita Feutl), and the middle-grade novel Addy’s Race. She is also the author of Your Child’s Hearing Loss: A Guide for Parents (Plural) with Jackson Roush.


George Salvador

[An edited transcription of a phone interview. The End of the Point is fictional, but it is based on a real place on the Massachusetts coast called Mishaum Point (Aushaunt Point in the novel). George Salavador is part of a South Dartmouth dairy family (of Portuguese origin) that has a popular ice cream stand called Salvador’s Ice Cream. The stand, with its real name, is mentioned several times in the book. Graver interviewed him while researching the story.]

What a long book. I just finished the last page before you called, a few minutes ago. I was impressed with the knowledge she [Elizabeth Graver] had of the area, the layout of Mishaum Point, the vegetation, she thoroughly researched all of that, and it is impressive.

As for the story, at first I didn’t like it. I thought that this is the kind of story that I avoid, with characters that I don’t care for. I didn’t like her characters and the way they talked to each other and what they thought about life and what they thought was important. These are not my views about life and what is important. Sometimes you are overwhelmed with detail, with all the research. I wanted to get back to the characters, to the action sometimes. I am not concerned with the 29 different kinds of plants. She had the knowledge, but it became too much for me.

Also, Graver writes in long sentences, and often she breaks the thought with parenthesis about seemingly extraneous material in the middle of her statement. This is a technique she used quite often, and it irritated me at first. It distracted the reader from what he or she really wanted to know—get down to the basics, I would think. But she seemed to enjoy that, to insert these little islands in her writing that seemed to have no relationship to the plot. It might have to do with weather conditions or with how many vegtables they had in their garden. It didn’t always seen to fit.

Still, I tried to relate all the detail about the land and to the Mishaum Point area to the story and eventually I could see there was some significance there, a tie. As I got further into the book, it began to have a meaning for me. The end of the family would seem to be the end of the point, Mishaum Point, but it left you hanging, uncertain. Will the officials of different towns be envious of Mishaum Point and will it become commercialized? Charlie tries so hard to stop it and is somewhat successful. I didn’t like his mother, Helen, until the end, then I began to see her in a different light, as she approached death. Until then, I thought she was selfish, a know-it-all type of person. I liked Charlie, but he didn’t know how strong he could be. Those were the two characters that I grew to like the best.

The ending made me think of whether wealth, which has created this environment on Mishaum Point, has helped these characters or not. I couldn’t see it in the novel, I couldn’t see how that great wealth was used wisely, except late in the book, when it was used to stop the take over of the land by business interests.

I thought she did a good job of showing the changes, starting with the Second World War and the establishment of a small base. I didn’t know a lot about that early time, it was mostly before my time. Still, it brought back a memory from the period of the Second World War. I realize that my father supplied the base with milk and dairy products. He would bring it down in his truck, and I would go with him, my eyes popping. I was curious about what the fort would be like. I remember going inside, putting the milk on the table.

Salvador’s Ice Cream stand

I like how the ending was realistic rather than pessimistic. I liked that. That is why I began to like the book more, and the key characters I mentioned. At least I found their lives interesting enough to stay with the novel. I don’t think I would have liked most of them in person. But I did find them interesting and saying things worth while listening to.

I found that in the end of the book, when we are dealing with what was happening now, politically, was not as important to her as the development of Charlie and his marriage and his having to see his mother die. I would like to think, in my interpretation, that he was a better person for it. It seems that now that his overwhelming mother is gone he can begin to establish himself as a person. He will no longer be overshadowed by her great, dramatic personality. But even as Helen approached death, she began to see the vanities she had in life, that the real moving things, the worthwhile things, are the positive experiences that we have with human beings in our lives. I think she senses that at the end, she sees the limits of her selfishness.

That is an accurate reflection of the people who stopped at Salvador’s from Mishaum Point or the summer colonies. They quite often had a slightly different accent, which didn’t bother me—it amused me. They seemed wrapped up with their own friends. They didn’t ask me about how business was going or how things are going. They didn’t do that—it might have been because I was young. It was a stand off—I wouldn’t get close to them and they wouldn’t get close to me. And that seemed to be the accepted way.

George Salvador is a retired high school history teacher and the author of a biography titled Paul Cuffe, The Black Yankee, 1759-1915 about Paul Cuffe, the Westport ship’s captain, civil rights leader, and entrepreneur.


Artist Response

Elizabeth Graver

Elizabeth Graver. Photo: Joanna Eldredge Morrissey

It was fascinating to read these responses, and I’m grateful to all four readers for charting their smart, honest, and generous responses to The End of the Point. All the reviewers note how the heart of my book is really its characters—their intersections with the place, yes, but also their long relationships to each other and their efforts to find meaning, carve out identities, and struggle with values and attachments, “ownership” and letting go. Both George Salvador and Roberta Silman admit to a certain resistance or even hostility to the idea of a book about a clan of rich people at a summer place and then track how their sympathies and understandings enlarged in some ways. Roberta’s tracing of the long chain of parenting and caretaking in the book gets at what is, for me, a central strand: How we are formed not just by our own time, our own parents or caretakers, but also by their past, their parents, on and on.

As Charlotte Bacon beautifully describes, she and I both arrived as outsiders to the real place that provided my inspiration for Ashaunt, Charlotte as a stepdaughter of a family with a summer house, and I as an in-law, having married into a family that, like the fictional Porters, has for many generations owned a house on a small spit of land on Buzzards Bay. My own family history has almost nothing in common with that of my central characters. I’m Jewish and went to public school until college. My parents grew up poor and went to City College and Queens College in New York. We never owned—nor did any of the families I grew up with—a summer house. I did, however, grow up in a beautiful natural setting in Massachusetts, though not by the sea. My relationship to place is one of both deep attachment to New England and of far-flung travel. I love to go far—to India, Turkey, Nicaragua, San Francisco, Switzerland, Scotland—almost as much as I love to come home.

My first conception of this novel had all to do with outsiders. I was going to write linked stories set in a single place. One story would be about the workers who scrubbed the rocks after an oil spill, another about the daughter of a cleaning woman (I published that story, “Flatiron,” in an anthology, but it never made it into the book). I’d write a story about the Wampanoag Indians in the 1600’s (the novel begins here now but quickly jumps to 1942); a fourth about a Scottish nanny, who became Bea in The End of the Point. What happened? Over several years of writing and researching, dreaming and playing, I realized that I wanted to inhabit the place over a stretch of time, not just peer in at it, and that to do this, I needed to give full lives not just to the outsiders or border-straddlers like myself, but also to the insiders (who, it turns out, once I looked hard at them, are all also outsiders in a way). I wasn’t interested in writing a social satire, any more than I wanted to write a book that ignored salient issues of class, money, privilege, and ownership. But class was not all; I hoped to explore a host of other things: parenting and caretaking, land over time, the intersections of world events—WWII, Vietnam—with daily life. People’s dreams, their quiet inward thoughts. Sex, bones, erosion, artifacts, language. What we pass on, for better or for worse. How we change, and how we don’t. What we own, in the widest definition of the word. How we love.

George Eliot wrote, “The responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision.” To go deeper into my subject matter for this novel, I had paradoxically both to narrow and enlarge my vision. To risk sound cliché, I love and sympathize with all my characters, even as I am fully aware of their flaws and quite fascinated by readers’ responses to them, which so far have a great range. I love Helen, who is feisty and ambitious, smart and self-absorbed, born into privilege but coming of age in an era when women had limited freedom to chart their own course. I love Bea, even if she doesn’t cotton to Jews or hippies (if she’d gotten to know me, surely she’d have come around to me. I made her, after all!). I love Charlie, who acts out in childish ways but protects the land fiercely and tenderly, and his grandmother, who lost two children and throws a mean party. To love them does not mean that I always approve of their actions or attitudes. I was pleased to see that the reviewers responded to the way some of the characters changed and matured by the novel’s end.

The Ashaunt of my novel is my own particular vision of a place, no more or less real than anyone else’s, but long in the making and, I hope, yielding some partial and subjective truths (with a small “t”). As Charlotte Bacon notes. one section of my novel is titled “Trespass.” Did I trespass in writing the book? No doubt but pretty openly, and with the permission and indeed help of many people connected to the real place. Is the book about myself? Of course, how could it not be—I imagined and wrote it—but not in any literal way, though readers who know me might catch a glimpse of me in Rachel, the Jewish academic historian who comes in at the end of the book and reads a diary over her husband’s shoulder. My impulses behind writing the book were multiple—to tell a good story, to understand things that felt hard to get my head around—but at its heart, this is a novel written out of love: for a place and its people, for, especially, my husband and our two fast-growing daughters, all three of them born into a wild, beautiful, privileged, fragile, enduring place that—it just now occurs to me—perhaps I’m also claiming a peculiar kind of ownership of, through the act of imagining my own version of it in this book.

George Salvador movingly says of the summer people who came to his family’s ice cream stand, “They seemed wrapped up with their own friends. They didn’t ask me about how business was going or how things are going. They didn’t do that—it might have been because I was young. It was a stand-off—I wouldn’t get close to them and they wouldn’t get close to me. And that seemed to be the accepted way.”

What is the fiction writer’s work but crossing over, trying to bridge divides, connect, get close? George was one of several people I interviewed during the researching and writing of this novel (others include a soldier who served on the real base during WWII, and his wife, who worked at the Rations Board; and my husband’s aunt; and Marcia Cornell Glyn, a member of the family that farmed the real Point for years). When I first called George, I think he found my request to talk to him strange, perhaps a little unsettling. Then we met. We talked for hours. “How are things going?” A story starts to form.

Elizabeth Graver is the author of four novels: The End of the Point, The Honey Thief, Unravelling, and Awake. Her story collection, Have You Seen Me?, was awarded the 1991 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories; Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards; Best American Essays; and Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses. She teaches at Boston College.


  1. Clara Stites on March 24, 2013 at 9:59 am

    I am about half way through and find that I am strangely hypnotized, partly by your powerful but quiet writing, partly by the people and place you describe/create, and partly by my own knowledge of the Point. I suppose it is a common failing to try to impose “true” as I know it to “fiction” as you shape it, but this effort doesn’t hurt the way I experience the story, just adds an interesting and somewhat unsettling air (who ARE these people? who AM I?). So — I love the book, am very interested and involved in reading it, admire the way you write and the way you entwine people. I need to slow down reading so the story will last longer. Thank you!

    • Elizabeth Graver on March 25, 2013 at 2:55 pm

      Thank you, Clara, for this lovely response.

  2. Charlotte Bacon on March 24, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    Elizabeth, wonderful response to our responses. Of course, writing a book is claiming ownership, if you read ownership as the opportunity to define a place, not just have a parcel of land attached to a deed. And then again, it’s not. Every generation of people on that Point–Wampanoag; early white farmers; the first summer people–most likely felt that tug. And the lives they had there, tenuous or secure, wretched or princely, unfolded across it and so that land felt like “theirs.” I am curious about the human desire to own and how different cultures hold land and how, in the US, the nature of ownership, of public versus private, changes by region and class. What will happen to the Ashaunts of this world when and if the money runs out? To whom and to what will they return? Is there always guilt in owning such a place? Is land something like an artifact of a indigenous culture that can be repatriated? Or is the story of land always a story told by victors? I have never been to the place Elizabeth calls Ashaunt without that weight pressing on me. And yet it has been a place linked to some of the happiest moments I’ve ever spent. Elizabeth’s complex people bring the land to life and in turn their lives are shaped by time on that land. We should all be lucky enough to love and see a place so well.

  3. Kate Iannarone on April 1, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    I am fortunate enough to be one of Elizabeth’s students…and even luckier to have gotten a sneak peak at a galley copy before the publication date! Returning to the novel now, with the time lapse and these responses to reflect upon, I am fascinated with the process that went into writing this story. Maybe process is the wrong word…it suggests something mechanically planned. Stories grow, I guess, and spawn seeds for more stories. And this story has a lot of potential offshoots: a place like Ashaunt can be rendered from any of the angles Elizabeth originally considered: the Wampanoag Indian tribe, the oil spill cleaners, the Scottish nanny (I am so pleased Bea made the cut!), etc. The use of a family to “inhabit” the place worked well; I couldn’t imagine the story without Charlie and Helen and Bea. It is still fascinating to consider, however, the other characters that might have been, might have spoken, might have shaped the place. The story helps us understand and inhabit Ashaunt as “insiders”…but doesn’t let us lose track of the Jerrys, Smittys, and other outside voices.

    • Elizabeth Graver on April 1, 2013 at 6:18 pm

      Thank you, Kate and Charlotte, for these wonderful responses. I’m fascinated by the how a novel might suggest–make real, almost–but not actually track or narrate all the UNtold stories inside it, the stories of the people on the periphery, the walk-on characters, and the ones not present because they lived at different moments in time. Ideally, I’d like the reader to feel as if there are stories in every direction, as if all the characters, even the walk-on roles, possess lives, and inner lives, and pasts, and futures. I just finished Michael Chabon’s novel, Telegraph Avenue, and that was one of its biggest pleasures for me–how very full it was, how abundant, in any almost Dickensian way.

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