Capturing That Sixties Vibe: Eleanor Morse’s Margreete’s Harbor
Think of the Sixties, and civil rights marches, assassinations, and antiwar protests come to mind. Feminism. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones; acid rock. Short skirts, long hair, psychedelic T-shirts. Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
But, as Eleanor Morse shows in her excellent novel, Margreete’s Harbor (St. Martin’s Press, 2021), the popular description overlooks a key element. Morse, author of White Dog Fell from the Sky (Viking/Penguin, 2013), about 1970s apartheid, and Chopin’s Garden (FoxPrint, 2006), based on World War II Poland, aims in Margreete’s Harbor to re-create the mindset of a fractious decade. “The Sixties began,” she says, “as a time of possibility and potential and hope.” Noting that many shared her view, “I believed that I could make a difference, do something small with thousands of others—truly make a difference.”
The phrase Sixties vibe, I think, puts that creed forward, joined by the demand to speak out, question authority, and cast off restraints. Margreete’s Harbor embodies this deeper portrayal in a delicate, impressive, lived-in way. Novels that rely on famous Sixties people or moments to stoke their narratives fail to convince me, no matter how many icons they pile up. Rather, Morse depicts family members scrabbling to understand their time and one another, so how each responds, and why, reveals their inner lives and an era.
The story begins in 1955, when Harry and Liddie Bright and their two young children leave Michigan to live with Liddie’s demented mother, Margreete, in coastal Maine. The children vocally object, not least because Grandma, whose lucidity varies like the wind, seems constant only in stubbornness. But in time, the kids learn more about who she is and grow to love her. Even Harry, who agreed to move because of familial duty, comes to appreciate his mother-in-law. Her outlandish declarations and refusal to accept truths that everyone else is struggling to live by may well suggest a dissolving mind. But Margreete, though no child of the Sixties, personifies resistance to restraint or rigid authority. In a way, she’s the keeper of the vibe—and Morse says she originally conceived her as a minor character, except that her role kept growing with successive drafts of the novel.
That evolution speaks to the author’s approach. She traces inklings of her story to about six years ago, but especially the last four. She had “the strong feeling that the Sixties were a precursor to what we have now,” witness the severe political divisions, street protests, unbridgeable suspicion of the opposing side, conspiracy theories right and left, and the “twisting of language,” intended to obscure or explain away government lies, “whether Richard Nixon’s or Donald Trump’s.” But the narrative that became Margreete’s Harbor took years to emerge. Of her storytelling, Morse says, “I often don’t understand what the meaning is until I’ve been at it for a while,” and, “I really expect and want my characters to participate in the creation of the book with me.”
They did a pretty good job. Harry, a former conscientious objector in World War II, is a schoolteacher who riles the small-town Maine community with classroom political diatribes, especially regarding the Vietnam War. Morse says she didn’t know he would become so fully engaged politically, but his “trajectory” evolved to define him by and anchor him in politics, as a man and a father determined to pass on his moral beliefs to his children. His son, Bernie, though equally committed, hates the sermons he endures at home, thinks his father talks out of both sides of his mouth, and disobeys his parents whenever he can.
His mother and sister, Eva, though they share moral outrage at the war and social injustice, react differently, chiefly through music. For Liddie, a professional cellist, music means balm, salvation, and a vital emotional outlet. When she discovers that Eva has a musical gift, she begins to teach her in a patient, thoughtful way, different from her usual parenting, how mother and daughter best connect. Where Harry and Bernie have a factual, concrete response to just about everything, Liddie and Eva think metaphorically: They’re artists. That’s why, Morse says, they appear to withdraw from the political and social maelstrom, but they don’t, really. They just try to create beauty despite the madness—which leads to further social conflicts.
Family alliances, suspicions, and fears play out many Sixties themes. As Morse says, “Whenever I write, I want to plant firmly in that time and place, so that readers can feel the era as it was.” Hers is a holistic approach, to use a word especially popular back then. She focuses on everyday living, as with Harry and Liddie’s relationship, attempting to show the battles and loneliness inherent in all marriages, yet also the sustenance. “Humans are creatures of longing,” Morse says. But, she insists, no one is all of a piece, consistent to the last. Some days, you go in one direction; at other times, another.
As a result, the characters in Margreete’s Harbor achieve a rare complexity, as they rise to the occasion one week and behave impossibly the next. Nobody has all the answers or a charmed life. You never feel an authorial hand shaping the action, or a voice speaking for a character. That’s how Morse achieves that lived-in feeling, which comes from the ground up.
She credits her approach to the four and a half years she spent in Botswana during the 1970s. Before then, she’d assumed that speaking up for marginalized people was a conscientious writer’s job, but Africa taught her not to presume to speak for anyone else, which includes her literary creations. She tries to see through a character’s eyes, rather than her own. Accordingly, she says only one very small moment in her book even comes close to autobiography.
If you remember the Sixties, Margreete’s Harbor will relive them with you. If you don’t remember them, you’ll taste their essence through exquisitely rendered relationships—and, no doubt, think of our time as well.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Larry Zuckerman, an HNR review editor, historian and novelist, reviews historical fiction on his weekly blog, Novelhistorian (novelhistorian.com).
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 96 (May 2021)