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Tethered to the Past

Featured Spotlight by Marcia Peck

Set on Cape Cod in the 1950’s, WATER MUSIC: A Cape Cod Story recalls a time when the Cape was something of a backwater compared to the wealth of Newport, the vogue of Long Island, or the accessibility of the Jersey Shore. Not until Kennedy was elected president at the end of the decade and later established the National Seashore, I would argue, did the Cape appear on the radar of the mainstream vacationing public.

That pre-Kennedy peninsula is the Cape Cod twelve-year-old Lily Grainger, the narrator of WATER MUSIC: A Cape Cod Story, falls in love with. Her father, a schoolteacher, could buy fifteen acres of waterfront on a salt pond at a hundred dollars an acre. Not ocean-front, to be sure. But a small paradise that offered a banquet of crabs, clams, beach plums, bluefish, eels, flounder, with space to pitch his tent, plant some tomatoes and cukes, and time to go for daily dips in the pond the property fronted. A bargain for a man who couldn’t afford even one deep-sea fishing excursion.

Like Lily, I too fell in love with the Cape in the ‘50s. It felt mythical to cross the Cape Cod Canal, the waterway that transformed this headland into an island. Initial construction on the privately-owned canal had begun in 1909 and was completed by 1914. Two bridges, one at Sagamore and the other at Bourne, connected Cape Cod to the mainland. But because of its shallow depth and the narrow openings of the bridges as well as dangerous currents, the canal failed to be a financial success for its investors. After World War I the Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with solving the canal’s navigational problems. Work began in 1928, continued in earnest through the Depression, and was completed by the time the United States entered World War II.

As I was writing WATER MUSIC, the image of the canal as “tether” intrigued me. Lily’s family—for various reasons--becomes increasingly “unmoored” during that summer of 1956. They learn that the bridge at Sagamore was closed for repairs and they would have to “cross the canal at Buzzards Bay over the only other roadway that tethered Cape Cod to the mainland.”

It felt very natural to see a tether as a metaphor for the fragile bond of love and safety that is fraying in Lily’s family. In a scene in Chapter 7 Lily views her mother and herself on a beach in Wellfleet as if from a great distance, “standing up to our knees in water on the edge of nothing more than a shifting sand dune, tiny bits of glass piled in the shape of an arm, an elbow, and a fist…Fragile as a piecrust. Adrift far out to sea.” Later in the book, we see Lily standing unsteadily on a three-legged stool while her mother pins the hem of her dress. And when Lily prepares to perform on her cello at the Talent Show, she fears she will fail to master the precarious “leap” to the high note that will mark success or failure.

Unsurprisingly, because of its unique location, more changes came to the Cape Cod landscape in the name of our national defense. In 1945 the World War II cargo ship, SS Longstreet, which had been damaged in a storm off the coast of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, was destined to be scrapped. Instead, the military decommissioned the 417.7 foot “ugly duckling” and towed it to Cape Cod Bay, where it was scuttled off the coast of Eastham and granted a second act as the object of aerial gunnery practice by fighter planes from Otis Air Force Base. Visible from shore, the resulting fireworks provided years of enjoyment for locals from Brewster to Wellfleet. In 1956 Lily equates the very audible rumble of the guns with the family’s increasing conflict. Eventually the practice was deemed unsafe and abandoned in the 1970’s.

One other footnote to the influence of World War II present in Lily’s experience during her summers on Cape Cod in the ‘50s: she and her sister go to the movies to see Them, the classic horror movie about giant radiation-soaked ants resulting from atomic testing in 1945. The terrifying chirping sounds that the ants make mimicked with uncanny accuracy the crickets that Lily and her sister hear when trying to fall asleep in their tent. I recently watched Them again, and oh-my-goodness…it may be dated, but the movie holds up!

Each chapter of WATER MUSIC is introduced by a number on the Beaufort Scale, the scale developed in 1805 by Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort that was intended to enable sailors to calculate visually the speed of wind, and trim their sails accordingly. The Scale was subsequently updated for use on land. I stumbled upon it quite by accident and was instantly charmed by the melodic descriptions that proved to be astonishingly accurate. Beaufort Number 6: “Strong Breeze,” wind speed 25-31 mph, large branches move, telegraph wires whistle, umbrellas difficult to control. Or Beaufort Number 10: “Whole Gale or Storm,” wind speed 55-63 mph, trees uprooted, considerable structural damage occurs.

And those uprooted trees bring me back to the idea of the tether as a recurring image. One evening as the family is picnicking on Nauset Beach, Lily and her family feel certain that they have spotted the Andrea Doria in the distance, steaming toward New York Harbor only hours before it was struck by a Swedish twin-diesel, the Stockholm. Lily and her family are mesmerized by the radio descriptions of the accident, rescue efforts, stories of drowning and survival.

But of all the details, one image has remained with me the longest. As Lily comes to understand from the reports: “by far the greatest number of survivors had been taken onto the Ile de France, which upon hearing the distress call had reversed course forty-five miles out to sea and returned to the Andrea Doria’s side. All night the great matron had beamed her searchlights onto the crippled princess, as if the strength of that tether could lengthen her life.”

That image of the mother figure extending her ephemeral tether, nothing more than a beam of light, became a foundational image for me in contemplating the relationship between Lily and her mother while writing WATER MUSIC: A Cape Cod Story.


Book Blurb:

The bridge at Sagamore was closed when we got there that summer of 1956. We had to cross the canal at Buzzards Bay over the only other roadway that tethered Cape Cod to the mainland.

Thus twelve-year-old Lily Grainger, while safe from ‘communists and the Pope,’ finds her family suddenly adrift. That was the summer the Andrea Doria sank, pilot whales stranded, and Lily’s father built a house he couldn't afford. Target practice on a nearby decommissioned Liberty Ship echoed not only the rancor in her parents' marriage, a rancor stoked by Lily’s competitive uncle, but also Lily’s troubles with her sister, her cousins, and especially with her mother. In her increasingly desperate efforts to salvage her parents' marriage, Lily discovers betrayals beyond her understanding as well as the small ways in which people try to rescue each other. She draws on her music lessons and her love of Cape Cod—from Sagamore and Monomoy to Nauset Spit and the Wellfleet Dunes, seeking safe passage from the limited world of her salt marsh to the larger, open ocean.

Author Bio:

They say all first novels are part memoir, and indeed I did grow up in Belleville, New Jersey, my family did spend our summers on Cape Cod, and I had a marvelous cello teacher who very much resembled Alphius Metcalf. It took me a long time to write WATER MUSIC; in some ways, my whole life.

Growing up with parents who were both musicians, I set out, with a little goading from my father, to be the best cellist I could be. In fact, I was lucky to have had a number of remarkable teachers: Orlando Cole, revered cellist and pedagogue, who saw enough early promise in me to accept me to his class at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where I received my Bachelor of Music degree. It was an incredible break for an unsophisticated girl from New Jersey. I remember him and his generous sense of decency and gentlemanly kindness with great affection and gratitude.

My luck continued when I spent two years studying in Germany in the Master Class of the renowned Italian cellist, Antonio Janigro. Since then I’ve spent my musical career with the Minnesota Orchestra, where I met and married the handsome fourth horn player. And where my formidable colleagues, incredibly, only get better and better and better.

I’ve spent my summers with the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming, renewing ties with musician friends from around the world (and catching up on industry gossip). There, over the years, I also learned the pleasures of backpacking. I came to fancy myself a mycologist, but in truth I’ve become so rusty that I now limit myself to store-bought and the occasional Morel foraged on a really good day.

The first book I truly fell in love with was Blue Willow by Doris Gates. I must have been in grammar school. I believe that the beloved china plate in that book finds its echo in WATER MUSIC. A college boyfriend got me reading The Lord of the Rings, which I uncharacteristically found bewitching, and T.S. Eliot, which I tried with only marginal success to memorize. Around that time I discovered The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis. And Mahler’s Tenth. Yes. Eclectic.

My own writing life snuck up on me. It first manifested as a journal after my daughter was born. She tolerated my reading to her for a charitably long time, but she put her foot down when I suggested Watership Down, which by then she was perfectly capable of reading herself. Two of my favorites from her early days: Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Berger and A Chair for My Mother by Vera Williams.

Books I’ve loved as an adult…way too many to name. But The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy made a huge impression on me. And A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I used to go on kicks: John Gardner, Wallace Stegner, Steinbeck, the ancient Greece novels by Mary Renault. Now the stack grows higher and higher.

Pet peeve: incorrect direct object pronouns. In fact my friends would call me a grammar nerd, but I still get lay and lie wrong.

Growing up, I was a cat person. But I’ve learned to love dogs—even the naughty ones, maybe especially the naughty ones.

All in all, I look for the rhythms and sounds of music echoed in language and aspire to transpose some of that into my writing.

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