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new england literary news | nina maclaughlin

A riveting survival story; a whaler turned slave trader

New Bedford Whaler turned slave trader Edward Davoll and his wife, Elizabeth.

Quarantine angst

Boston native Rory Power’s dystopic debut “Wilder Girls ” (Delacorte), out this month, grips with a clenching fist, holding the reader tight with sharp-skilled storytelling, and walloping with the ideas underneath. Tox, a contagious disease, has arrived at the Raxter School for Girls on a remote island and the school is in a lockdown quarantine. Tox causes a variety of metamorphoses: scales, second spines, hair made of light. As the people and institutions in place to protect betray and collapse, three friends, Hetty, Reese, and Byatt, protect one another and love one another with the ferocity of girlhood friendships. Power’s language is specific and lush, with a rhythm to the sentences that propels one along the page. As when Hetty and Reese “keep out of the wilds, stick to the spidery deer paths that run through the trees, both of us keen to face the danger we know instead of the danger we don’t.” The riveting survival story explores friends as family, the place where friendship blurs to romance, and the dire social and environmental consequences of climate change.


Down with the ship

In his biography of a Westport-born whaler turned slave trader, “Went to the Devil: A Yankee Whaler in the Slave Trade ” (Bright Leaf), current Westport resident Anthony J. Connors tells the story of Edward Davoll, a New Bedford-based whaling captain who veers towards the slave trade when the drudge and gruel of whaling begin to weigh and his fortune begins to fade. Connors also explores the rise in the slave trade leading up to the Civil War, and how that coincided with the decline of the whaling industry, forcing some men towards abominable choices. Connors points to “a peculiar relationship between whaling and the slave trade, made possible by the dimming prospects for whaling and the crafty New York slaving agents and their worldwide network of financiers who were able to exploit whalers’ economic uncertainty and moral indifference to their advantage.” Davoll’s life unfolds against a backdrop in a crucial, fraught moment in United States history.


Journal entry

The Common ,” the literary magazine based out of Amherst College, was recently awarded winner of the Whiting Foundation’s Literary Magazine Prize, the largest national prize for non-profit literary magazines, with a grant of $60,000 over three years. According to the Whiting Foundation, the prizes “acknowledge, reward, and encourage organizations that actively nurture the writers who tell us, through their art, what is important.” In their citation, Whiting judges referred to The Common’s “stunning portfolios, sophisticated design, and an intuitive sense of literary connectivity” as giving readers access to “global perspectives” as well as uniting “them as students of the human condition.” The funds will be aimed toward including new and underrepresented writers, local and international, whose work helps to ground our sense of place.

Coming Out

Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith (Graywolf)

Berta Isla by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Knopf)

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino (Random House)

Pick of the Week

Alex Bell at the Northshire Bookstore in Northshire, Vermont, recommends “This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom ” by Martin Hägglund (Pantheon): “A new philosophy for our time that’s still rooted in the past. I burned through this book so fast I forgot it was 400 pages. I even reread passages I enjoyed, because it was so engaging and thought provoking. Anyone interested in Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” series will devour it. This is my new favorite philosophy book.”


Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter.” She can be reached at nmaclaughlin@gmail.com.