In Print : An unseen side of Vineyard life
"The Mud of the Place," by Susanna J. Sturgis, Speed-of-C Productions, 396 pages, $19.99.
"The Mud of the Place," Susanna Sturgis's first novel, is well named. The title comes from Grace Paley, who absolutely ruled the chic Manhattan social order in the 70s and 80s. She said: "If your feet aren't in the mud of the place, you better watch where your mouth is."
Ms. Sturgis, a former staff member at The Martha's Vineyard Times, has clearly been paying attention to Island culture, mores and personalities in her 23 years here. She knows how Island life works. For visitors, the result is an inside look at how life really is for workaday people on this resort Island.
Islanders will enjoy the rich cast of vaguely familiar characters. Readers may succumb, as this reviewer did, to an overwhelming urge to compare a fictional character with a real Vineyarder.
Set on Martha's Vineyard in the late 1990s, the book opens with a gunshot on the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road followed by a case of suspected arson in West Tisbury, but moves away from thriller mode to tell the stories of several characters who are seeking safe Island ground for their lives.
The book describes the journey of several Islanders, walking through fear to discover their essential "mud," in order to become complete people.
Jay Segredo is an Island kid who went off to college and became a social service wunderkind. He is brought home as the leader of a division of Island Social Services. He is also gay and is terrified to come out, despite the urging of friends in the Martha's Vineyard gay and lesbian community.
Can he be happy or continue in his career unless he continues to live his secret?
Mary Chase is a battered wife who furtively shuttles fearfully between Island friends with her son to avoid an alcoholic husband.
Jay's sister and her three kids are hoping that her violent and drunk husband, who's being eyed for the shooting, stays off Martha's Vineyard, from which he's been banished, until he completes psychiatric evaluation.
Shannon Merrick is a painter turned graphic designer who is very comfortable as a lesbian but is terrified of her art and hasn't been able to set foot in her home studio in four or five years.
There's more. A well described cast of Island types and personalities troop through the pages, their activities often monitored by Leslie Benaron, reporter for the one of Martha's Vineyard's two weekly newspapers.
Ms. Sturgis describes the muddy side of Vineyard life, after the jetsetters and McMansion residents have left, and the residents who remain to fend for themselves and each other through late winter and early spring.
Some of the less attractive realities of Island life are clearly defined in "The Mud of the Place," including the impact of alcoholism on residents and their families.
There's no description of $1,000 admission benefit auctions, but a lot about the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Ms. Sturgis has been writing and editing to support herself, her dog, and her horse for a long time. She held nothing back in writing her first novel. There are several subplots to follow and please know that you have to love dialog, lots of dialog.
If readers like terse writing, they may be challenged from time to time, but they will also be rewarded with nuggets of insight and perfectly drawn descriptions of people, places, and things. In a place where rocket scientists drive cabs, one character is described as "...the worst underachiever I've ever seen, and on Martha's Vineyard that's saying something."
Said another character, describing Islander frugality, "It's a genetic thing. New Englanders are frugal and Vineyarders are frugal squared...."
Vineyarders are laconic, reporter Benaron found, musing that she had never lived in a place where everyone knew everything, but still, the truth was so hard to pin down.
Jack Shea is a freelance writer for The Martha's Vineyard Times.