When I was in high school, I butted my way through (I think) every book Stephen King had written at that time. From this informal education on Maine geography, I learned that it is populated with crazed religious fanatics, serial killers, vampires, and killer clowns dwelling in sewers. Its principal exports are rabid dogs and haunted cars. Principal imports are out-of-towners that stumble into the state, only to meet a grisly fate.
When I began Cris Mazza's Waterbaby, I thought, oh, this will be a nice change of pace. A middle aged woman comes to the Maine coast to investigate her roots and learn more about the generations of lighthouse keepers she descended from. Turns out this novel is based on the weaving together of two Maine legends; the ghost of a woman who drowned off the Maine coast, and a shipwrecked baby, kept alive by floating on top of the frigid, choppy water sandwiched between two feather mattresses, and rescued by a lighthouse keeper.
Oh, Maine, Maine. If you don't want tourists to visit, why don't you just say so? I am certain Disneyworld will take us.
Protagonist Tam Marr-Burgess is somewhat of a tourist herself. Haunted by the past losses that shaped her life, Tam leaves a messy breakup with her dog trainer roommate and impulsively hops the train to Maine, ostensibly to help her genealogist sister Martha obtain documents linking the branches in the family tree she is building. When she sets foot in the Maine harbor town of Hendrick's Head, instead of shedding the ghosts of the past, she picks up two more: Seaborne, the shipwrecked baby, and her adoptive sister Mary Catherine. As she pieces together the lives of the two girls, who grew up and staved off sorrow together, their newly fleshed-out lives help illuminate hers.
Waterbaby is a novel of baptism, of rebirth and resurrection, and of babies lost, abandoned, dead. Tam, a former champion swimmer, ended a promising Olympic career before it even began when she had her first epileptic seizure while racing her now-estranged brother Gary. Despite refusing ever again to wet a toe, Tam nevertheless fills her life to the brim with water, from dating a swim coach to living in the Hendrick's Head lighthouse, flirting around with the idea of plunging back and an reclaiming what she had lost, but never quite being able to do so. When she rescues an abandoned baby in a laundromat toilet, she begins to tentatively take the first steps toward reconciling herself, with the help of the spirit of Mary Katherine and the baby Seaborne left in her care, to healing from the loss of her own baby decades ago.
Waterbaby is a languid novel, lacking the intensity and drama of a novel propelled by a younger woman would have. Tam, in her late-forties and retired from her life as a successful stockbroker, has the patience and wisdom of someone older, someone with the ability to let events unfold when they may. For the most part this suits the novel very well, but I would be remiss if I did not admit that I found the pages where Tam's surroundings are described a bit tough to take. Early in the book, Tam enters a convenience store upon her arrival to Hendrick's Head, and we are treated to at least two pages cataloging the store down to the smallest detail. I know what a 7-11 looks like. I know you do, too. We do not need a thorough description of every hot dog slowly revolving around in their heated glass case. We do not need to be told there is fluorescent lighting and a take-a-penny bowl at the register. We are with you. We are already there.
Sure, I read these pages. But I don't think you have to. Like the chapters dedicated to whaling in Moby Dick, you won't miss anything by skipping them and moving on to more interesting things, like tracking down the mother of the toilet baby.
On the whole, Mazza's thoroughness pays off, and she paints Hendrick's Head with a stunning realism, and you feel like you're right there with Tam as she comes to terms with her life and her tumultuous relationship with her family.
by Cris Mazza
October, 2007 by Soft Skull Press
Paperback, 305 pp.
Sunday, April 27, 2008