Thomas and Beal in the Midi: A Novel

Written by Christopher Tilghman
Review by Larry Zuckerman

In the early 1890s, childhood friends, now newlyweds Beal Terrell and Thomas Bayly, leave their native Maryland. Their departure would be unremarkable, except that Beal, the child of former slaves, grew up on Thomas’s father’s farm. Since interracial marriage is illegal in Maryland—dangerous anywhere in the United States—the pair crosses the Atlantic to Paris, where, after a few months’ research, Thomas decides to grow grapes in Languedoc.

Thomas and Beal are happy together, and despite what other people expect, the interracial aspect of their marriage causes them no trouble. Rather, what friction they have, which rubs below the surface, involves the failure to communicate their dreams in a way the other understands, and what they do to compensate. The biggest trouble between them—and with the narrative—is Beal’s passivity concerning how men other than her husband look upon her as a beautiful object. I like the theme, but I find her reaction hard to credit and unsympathetic.

As for the prose and Tilghman’s gift for capturing emotional nuance, the narrative succeeds marvelously. The grafting of grape rootstock that Thomas must do to protect his vineyards from pests offers a wonderful metaphor for their marriage, his attempt to repair his father’s sins, and the chance to make a fresh start. Don’t let the detailed focus fool you into thinking the narrative moves slowly; there’s plenty going on, unexpected small moments full of meaning that create tension. In fact, it seems as if the end were condensed, forestalling a needed confrontation or two.

But anyone who likes historical atmosphere will breathe in Paris and the Languedoc wine country with pleasure; and as a literary excursion, this journey satisfies.