by John Casey
Reviewed by Peggy McMullen
John Casey's novel Spartina won the National Book Award in 1989 with its man-and-the-sea tale of crusty Dick Pierce, who sailed out into a hurricane to save the 50-foot fishing boat he built with his own hands.
Now, more than 20 real-time years later, in Compass Rose, the slow-brewing storms around Dick lie landlocked in the still, marshy backwaters of the same narrow bit of Rhode Island seacoast called South County.
Game warden Elsie Buttrick has just given birth to the child conceived during the affair she and Dick had in Spartina. Where Spartina was Dick's story, Compass Rose belongs to the three women who surround Rose as she grows from infant to teenager.
Strong-willed Elsie is one. Dick returned to his family after the storm in Spartina, so Elsie is struggling to get back into the rhythm of her independent life while raising Rose.
Helping her is Mary Scanlon, a cook at the local inn, who moves in with Elsie to be there for young Rose.
The other is Dick's wife, May. It's a small community they live in: If it wasn't for a row of trees, May could see Elsie's house from her vegetable garden. Everyone knows what's happened and Elsie, May knows, will not live a quiet small life.
There might be no end to Elsie Buttrick, but there was no way of knowing about that unless she got out and took Elsie's measure. Let Elsie know that she and her daughter didn't live in some other world.
So May goes to Elsie to tell her she thinks Dick should see his daughter, but see her in the Pierce household.
'If it was just about you and Dick ... you could keep Rose to yourself,' May said. 'Or ... Dick could come over here. Least that way Rose would know her father. But then Dick might end up thinking he's got two families. If Rose comes over to see us, then she's the one with two families.'
A compass rose is a figure on a nautical map laying out north and south, east and west. In this small community, Rose's reach creeps out in all directions as Casey explores the many landscapes of family.
The supposed plot of the novel encompasses a scheme by Elsie's brother-in-law, developer Jack Aldrich, to take over Dick's property. That's a minor point, however, as the emotional entanglements are the real frisson here as new and old love interests in the tidal lands ebb and flow. Casey wades with aplomb through the imposed intimacies of a small setting and the closed feel of a place where families have lived for generations, and it takes years for outsiders to ever really belong.
He bogs down at times, however. As the novel skitters from one woman to another, emotions can be murky and characters hard to track. Prickly Elsie, for example, spends much of the early part of the book whipping her clothes off for different men with Dick only a distant blip on her radar, then, suddenly espouses Dick as the love of her life. And May makes references to the barbed pain she must push down but at other times seems to let things blow across her like a fall breeze ruffling the surface of a pond. Compass Rose
is the second in a planned trilogy. Casey fans can hope the next segment arrives sooner than 2030.