Margreete’s Harbor

Written by Eleanor Morse
Review by Larry Zuckerman

One day in 1955, Liddie Bright gets the phone call she’s long dreaded: Her mother, Margreete, has set fire to her kitchen, final proof that she can no longer live alone. Someone needs to care for her, and Liddie’s elected.

Trouble is, Liddie, her husband, Harry, and their two kids have a settled, more or less happy life in Michigan, while Margreete lives in Burnt Harbor, Maine. But the family does move, perhaps with too little marital conflict. As the years progress, each character grapples with internal changes and those around them, and since we’re talking mostly about the Sixties, that means the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and feminism, for starters, all rendered in highly personal terms.

Morse gives you characters as deep as the Maine harbor on which they live, contradictory, sometimes cranky, secretive, and altogether real, depicted in gorgeous prose. She’s not afraid to show you their faults, to the extent that I sometimes have the urge to bang Harry’s and Liddie’s heads together—he, for his preaching and inability to admit mistakes; and she, for her self-pity. Yet their struggle redeems them, for they want to understand what happened to their dreams and their marriage, which, at times, feels like an increasingly leaky vessel. I particularly love the way Morse portrays the kids, who battle for parental attention, reach for or push one another away, and try to find out who they are.

If I have one complaint, I wish the narrative opened wider at moments, particularly to reveal Burnt Harbor. But if you like literary fiction, you’ll be swept away, and if you wish to discover (or rediscover) the Sixties as ordinary people lived then, here’s your chance.