The House on Salt Hay Road, the debut novel by Carin Clevidence, tells the story of the Scudder family and the house they live in. I make sure to mention the house because it is the book’s namesake. And Clevidence handles the house with precision and beauty, infusing it with life and personality and humanity. Indeed, in the opening section of the book, titled “A Floating House,” readers discover that the house used to be located on the bank of the Terrell River. Scudder, the grandfather and patriarch of the Scudder family, was ten years old when his own father won the house in an auction, only to find out that he had bought just the house, and not a bit of the land it stood on. Rather than pay extra, the man waited for the next high tide and rolled the building onto a barge to float it downriver to Southease, the town where the story is set. As a boy, Scudder had waited on the shore for the house to arrive and “remembered watching the house appear in the distance and how strange the silhouette of it seemed, like a boat built by someone with no understanding of water or wind.”
Yet despite this sort of magic, there’s only so much story to a house. The people who live inside it are what make this novel the tender, beautiful work that it is. In the present narrative the house’s inhabitants include Scudder, his son Roy, his daughter Mavis, and his grandchildren, Clayton and Nancy, the children of his deceased daughter. Mavis has run home to the house on Salt Hay Road to escape a bad marriage and a troubled past, taking solace in her childhood home and in religion. Roy has never left home, scarred by the accidental death of his first love. And the grandchildren have resided here since they were seven and fourteen, respectively, when their mother died of cancer.
As is probably already evident, disaster plays a prominent role in the Scudder family. It is, after all, what’s brought them to the house together in the beginning of this book. And no shortage of tragedies will befall them by the end of this novel. Yet because of Clevidence’s expert handling of the narrative—one that is full of twists and turns of kindness, romance, pain, and loss—there is always an artful juxtaposition of the tragic and the blessed, the terrifying and the beautiful. For example, the book begins with the explosion of a fireworks factory, which is described in both wondrous and frightening ways:
A man on Ketchum Road later swore that the face of the Shah of Persia had appeared in lights above his vegetable garden. The stained-glass window in the Presbyterian church, the one showing Christ as a fisher of souls, fell in pieces. […] When the ground shook, people feared their homes were collapsing around them; a terrified mother tossed her baby out an open window. Wrapped in a blanket, he landed unharmed in the yellow branches of a forsythia.
This duality—the menacing and the miraculous—is strung through the day-to-day lives of the characters, too. Southease is a port town, and Scudder used to work as a Life Saver, going out to distressed or sinking ships to save as many people as possible. While certainly there are happy endings to many of these near-calamities, the tales of his rescues are just as often about his inability to save lives, and he recounts these failures with haunting clarity: bodies clinging to the rigging, frozen in place; the shadows of people, unable to hold on any longer, falling into the sea; and Scudder’s own futility, either at sea or standing on the shore, unable to sail out to the boats in treacherous waters.
In fact, failure seems to be the family’s legacy. But there are no insignificant failures to be found; indeed, to call them failures seems to cheapen each character’s experience. What I mean is that things have a way of going terribly wrong, and the effects of that wrongness, that sense of failure, affects the characters for the rest of the novel.
Old man Scudder spent his life doing work that was doomed to failure. Attempting to save people on distressed ships in the middle of storms was an endeavor that went wrong far more often than it went right. His children, Roy and Mavis, both suffer their own failures. When Mavis realizes her marriage can’t be salvaged, that she has, indeed, married a cruel man, she leaves, comes home, and finds comfort in baking late at night and in believing wholeheartedly in God. When the fireworks factory explodes at the beginning of the book, Mavis, at work in the kitchen of the Washington Lodge, sees not a spectacle of modern explosives, but rather the hand of an angry God:
Mavis, stout and ungainly, fell heavily to her knees and pressed her feather-covered hands together. Out the window an ugly gray cloud was rising above the trees. “Our Father who are in Heaven…” The cloud seemed to take on a shape. She could see it moving toward her. The fist of God, she thought, breathing in the smell of brimstone. She squeezed her eyes shut and prayed as fire whistles went off and dogs all over town began to howl. She prayed as flakes of ash as big as hands drifted in through the open window and brushed her face.
Mavis finds faith in her family and in her God. She spends her time attempting to make her niece, Nancy, act more ladylike instead of riding her horse all the time. She attempts to hold the family together with her breads and pies and intense prayers. In the end, it doesn’t work.
Roy’s failures are perhaps even more epic and tragic, but Clevidence tells his story with such grace, with such compassion, that to call Roy’s story one of failure seems mean. When Roy was a young man, he fell in love with a rich girl, and after his enthusiastic pursuit to woo her, she agreed to break off her engagement and be with him. Tragically, she died shortly thereafter in an accident. Roy found out by reading the story in the paper. After reading it, he left a note for his family, walked into the Great South Bay, but found that the water only reached to his thighs. Clevidence writes, “He dropped to his knees. The salty water soaked his shirt and filled his mouth with the taste of tears. Now he was kneeling in the bay with his head protruding like a turtle’s. He should have stayed home and slit his goddamn wrists.”
In the end, Roy couldn’t do it, couldn’t end his life. He walked back out of the bay and picked up his shoes, which, Clevidence writes, “seemed to be waiting for him, with the patience of the inanimate, as if they had known all along that he wouldn’t actually go through with it.”
Though it is the patriarch of the family—and fittingly so—who manages to best articulate, in a sense, how this life wears on and wears one away. Towards the end of the novel, in an attempt to comfort Mavis after a series of family tragedies, Scudder offers to teach her to play cribbage. In a moment of desperate compassion, Scudder considers Mavis and her faith:
Scudder tried for a moment to give God the benefit of the doubt. For Mavis’s sake, he tried to imagine Him. And what came to his mind, forgive an old sinner, was not a God who was omnipotent at all but an ancient God, all-seeing but deeply tired, a God who watched the people on the earth He had created the way Scudder had watched those doomed figures in the rigging of the wrecked ship. God heard their cries in the darkness; He loved them and He wished he could reach them. But he was very, very tired, and He was so far away. He could not save any of them, in the end.
In the face of loss and the passage of so much time, Scudder verbalizes the feeling that I believe Clevidence imbues in the two older generations of the Scudder family: these people are tired. Scudder attempted to save lives, but couldn’t; Mavis tried to change people and keep a family together, but couldn’t; Roy fell in love, then fell to pieces, failing at ending his life, and at the end of the day, was defeated by his own will to live. Scudder, Mavis, and Roy have trudged on, raising children and trying to make their lives work little by little, but time has moved on, and nature has had its way with them and their home. They, like Scudder’s old and weary God, are tired.
The younger generation, through success, has contributed to the exhaustion of their elders. On the day of the fireworks factory explosion, Nancy meets a man named Robert who shortly thereafter becomes her husband. Nancy has been trying to escape the house on Salt Hay Road for a while. She follows in her mother’s footsteps—as her father’s favorite, the daughter who moved away, who could sail, who married rich and had babies. When Nancy is writing a letter to Robert, after he asks her about her favorite aspect of home, she allows “herself to wonder for a moment how it would feel, not to move from the house on Salt Hay Road so much as the leap of faith, the trading of one life for a different one. Of course, her mother would have taken it in stride fairly easily, Nancy thought. She was a woman unsurprised by her own success.” Nancy is very much her mother’s daughter; her focus has been to trade her life on Southease for a new, brighter one, in her own house, in love, in a new city. Nancy’s success breaks her family’s heart, and it irrevocably changes her relationship with her brother and her grandfather, those she was closest to.
Clayton’s success is tied to his most epic regret. When he is still a young man living at home in Southease, he hooks school one day and goes to Fire Island as a storm is coming in. Due to a series of tragic events (that must be withheld to respect Clevidence’s artful plotting and the pleasure of the reader), Clayton feels no choice but to leave the island, go move in with Nancy, and eventually, join the Navy. He fights in World War II and receives commendation for his excellence in service. He has made his training on the waters around Southease into a successful military career, but the commendation will always be bittersweet to him because of the circumstances of his departure.
However, these dichotomies between success and failure paint the story in terms that are a little too absolute for my taste; where each character pursues what they want, whether they succeed in making it happen or not, there are difficulties, gray areas, that complicate their desires. Mavis’s marriage failed, but in the end, Mavis ends up the only child left at home, getting to know her father in a way she never could have if she were still married and far away. Scudder couldn’t save the distressed people on those ships out to sea, and he couldn’t save his son, and he couldn’t make Mavis’s life okay. But he provided a home; he loved dearly, gruffly. Even though he was tired, he got up each morning and did his best. Roy was a man of unfinished tasks, of failed experiments, but the point is that he tried, over and over again.
Yet when compared to the successes of the younger Scudders—Nancy’s escape to a new life, Clayton’s life spent on the water—the lives of every member of that family look filled with success and failure; happiness and regret; grace to temper the guilt, and love to temper everything counter to it; the scales are balanced, not with happy endings, but by honoring lives spent trying and failing and trying again, always with hope. In the end, Carin Clevidence manages to write a book that exemplifies all the reasons we turn to fiction. The story is messy, the characters complicated, the setting picturesque. The House on Salt Hay Road is a book filled with gray areas, but behind all that gray is a view of the sea—the great, wide sea, full of its infinite possibilities.
Further Links and Resources
- Read Carin Clevidence’s short story “Getting Rid of Richard” that appeared in Five Chapters in 2010.
- Listen to Clevidence discuss the themes of The House on Salt Hay Road – including birds—with WFCR Public Radio‘s Susan Kaplan.
- Learn more about the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, where Clevidence was a Writing Fellow in 1999-2000.
- Read “The agony of the 15-year gestation period: A conversation with author Carin Clevidence”, a dialogue between the author and Suzanne Wilson that was published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 23, 2010.