Historical context is an indispensable element in much of Anita Shreve’s fiction. But Shreve does not simply use history as a backdrop; rather, in her stories, historical events make things happen. Her 2002 novel Sea Glass provides an excellent example of this. By weaving the action and character impulses tightly within the fabric of real-life temporal context, Shreve uses history as a causative agent, making it a tool for developing her point-of-view characters and also a catalyst to propel their fictional stories forward.
Sea Glass is an engaging tale of love, friendship, and class conflict set in the fictional location of Ely Falls, Maine, during the early months of the Great Depression. Shreve uses rotating third-person, limited-omniscient point of view to convey her story. The novel’s primary point of view characters include the newlyweds Honora and Sexton Beecher; Vivian Burton, a wealthy society woman; McDermott, a local textile mill worker who becomes a reluctant labor activist; and Alphonse, a young boy from a French family who also toils in the mill.
Several real-life historical events propel the story forward by forcing the fictional characters to act upon them or react to them. Various passages told in Honora’s point of view, for example, refer to a catastrophic explosion of a French munitions carrier that occurred in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917. The explosion—which also triggered fires and a powerful tidal wave—destroyed much of Halifax and caused the death or injury of thousands.
Shreve uses the harbor explosion to illustrate a powerful, defining moment in Honora’s life and that of her family of origin. The disaster exacts a grim personal toll, taking the lives of Honora’s father and younger brother and blinding her Uncle Harold. Not surprisingly, it alters the young woman’s worldview going forward, conditioning her to regard life situations with anxiety or caution. In one scene, for example, she is depicted walking through a city that is vaguely reminiscent of Halifax when she notices her shoulders “hunching against impending disaster.”
But the Halifax incident also leaves Honora with a pronounced ability to withstand hardship and challenges in her adult life. She is, after all, a survivor. And this strength of character and tempered resolve become especially evident in the face of another historical calamity that comes to impact the life of every character in Sea Glass: the Great Depression of the 1930s.
As we know, the Depression began with a precipitous collapse of stock prices during the last days of October, 1929; and it is this event that Shreve uses to introduce the long socioeconomic ordeal that would soon bring the nation to its knees.
In Sea Glass, readers experience the initial crash primarily though the very different experiences of Vivian Burton and a minor character, Dickie Peets. This is wholly appropriate, and a wise authorial choice, as the October 1929 crash was most keenly felt among those who stood to lose the most. At the beginning of the novel, both individuals are from old money families, and they each share a taste for boozy dissipation and lavish living. In the immediate wake of the crash, however, Dickie discovers to his horror that his lopsided investment portfolio (“stocks all the way”) has lost nearly all of its value. As a result, he winds up in the humiliating position of having to sell his new beachfront home to Vivian and accept employment with the Arrow shirt company. Vivian fares much better financially, thanks to her father’s conservative investment strategy. But even she must adjust to changing times. The hedonistic lifestyle she once enjoyed is now limited, since so many of her peers are broke. So she begins spending her leisure time writing plays and walking Dickie Peets’ dog along the beach. Here she meets and eventually befriends Honora—a social phenomenon might have never occurred without the leveling effect of economic depression.
The malaise quickly spreads from the investment community to the everyday world, putting millions of people out of work, dooming banks and businesses, and even threatening class revolution. In the American microcosm of Shreve’s Sea Glass, the catalyzing effect of the Great Depression is demonstrated most vividly in the labor unrest boiling over in the local textile industry. Enforced speedups, wage cuts, and dangerous shop conditions had long been factors in the workaday lives of mill hands throughout New England; but the onset of these especially hard times only make things worse, and more obvious, resulting in an unprecedented wave of protracted, angry, and often violent strikes.
One such labor action called at the Ely Falls mill places the novel’s primary characters in close contact with one another—a juxtaposition that breaks down barriers of class, ethnicity, and politics; begets romantic entanglement between Honora and the textile worker, McDermott; and ultimately ends in tragedy and murder. As mill workers, McDermott and the young boy, Alphonse, are naturally drawn into the strike from the beginning. But Honora and Vivian soon become involved as well, lending moral, logistical and, in Vivian’s case, financial support to the strikers. Even Honora’s less-than-gallant husband—the conniving, abusive Sexton Beecher—plays a role, though hardly a favorable one. In the course of the story, Sexton loses his job as a traveling salesman and eventually ends up working at the mill. It is his shooting of a policeman during the labor strike that triggers a vicious retaliation from company vigilantes. During the attack, which comes at the climax of the novel, McDermott, Alphonse’s mother, and several key strike leaders are killed.
Just as before, the historical event of the Great Depression has set a long series of fictional actions into motion. Similarly, the millworkers strike, though it is a fictional account in this story, nevertheless mirrors the very real outbreak of labor unrest that rocked the decade of the 1930s and profoundly impacted the lives of real people—just as it did the various characters in the closing chapters of Sea Glass.
Anita Shreve is a superb novelist, with a proven gift for character development and the ability to create palpable relationships between fictional people—lovers, friends, family, and adversaries. But she also has a keen interest in developing the temporal context of her stories, and that is what sets her apart from others in her field. Most importantly, she understands that historical events are causative agents, catalysts for change and action in real life; and she brings this awareness to bear on her fictional stories and characters. Novels like Sea Glass are the result.