I’ve got mixed reactions to The Story of Land and Sea. On the one hand it is a tale that evokes the cruelty of slavery in a very subtle way. Not by describing beatings or lashings but by casually mentioning that of course ‘your’ slave girl (who also happens to be your best friend) has got to marry the slave you want her to marry. No discussion possible, that is how things are done. When that same slave years later asks for her liberty, she is not given it: she can buy it by doing extra chores. Chilling through its casualness.
There are also moments in The Story of Land and Sea in which Simpson Smith beautifully describes the loss of a daughter and a wife. “Every corner in John’s house is a corner she once rounded. The walls still carry her fingerprints”. No frills, plainly writing down what a father in mourning feels. At other moments however Simpson Smith is trying too hard to be a writer writing profound things. Compare for instance what she writes when John and his sweetheart Helen meet again: “She cannot speak. There is a man whom she loves who is not her father, and God who carried her here is waiting to guide her out again, but she cannot recall an image of home to help him. God is crouching, waiting for her.”. I find it contrived and affected. Unfortunately for me there are too many examples of contrived and affected wording to make The Story of Land and Sea a convincing, and more importantly, pleasant read. Its effect is to create a distance with the story and its characters. It might be that Simpson Smith wanted to create this feeling of distance, it would fit her characters who are aloof and do not relate easily to the people they love. I get the feeling however that Simpson Smith just tried too hard to write beautifully. When she manages to balance words, meaning and emotion I find myself transported to her world; at those moments the balance is off, I find myself kept at a distance, not allowed to get close to main characters Asa or John. I would have loved more of those well-balanced sentences. They show where Simpson Smith’s real potential as a writer lies.