“Some things are better off left unsaid.”
A credo of old-school, moneyed, East Coast culture, this advice permeates Sarah Blake’s latest novel, The Guest Book. As she unwinds a tale about the Milton family, Blake explores those things left unsaid. Whether the reason is a desire to maintain a public image or because some things have just always been that way, what happens when people heed this advice? And what happens when they ignore it and speak of the unmentionable?
The story begins with Kitty and Ogden Milton. Living in New York City during the 1930s, the couple seems to live a charmed life. Ogden is a successful banker. Kitty, her father would brag, was “born a Houghton and married a Milton.” Theirs is a time when men lead and women tend and Ogden and Kitty fulfill their roles splendidly.
When tragedy intrudes upon their neatly ordered lives, Ogden uses the profits from a recent business deal to buy an island, a 400-acre family refuge off the coast of Maine. He hopes it will make his wife happy again. He hopes it will secure their reputation as the “Miltons of Crockett’s Island.”
“One could do things like that in the thirties,” explains their granddaughter Evie years later.
One could, of course, if they were rich and white. A colleague, a fellow history professor, quickly reminds Evie that for others, the '30s were a time of daunting unemployment and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
While the book offers a glimpse into the lives of the Miltons, it also reveals much about America – a place of such wildly disparate experiences, a place with its own secrets buried beneath a burnished image.
“Wars, plagues, names upon tombs tell us only what happened. But history lies in the cracks between,” explains Evie to the college students in one of her classes.
It is into those cracks that Blake shines her light. Gliding back and forth across the generations, she captures the consequences of decisions, of buried secrets, and of shifting societal norms. History, after all, is not static. And while textbook timelines appear to be neat and logical, cracks tend to be messy and irregular – much like people’s lives.
Each generation of Milton struggles in its own way to uphold the family image. The name that Ogden intended to be a protective cloak can also be a limiting shroud. Is it a blessing that imparts stability and privilege? Or is it confining, a barrier that impedes any effort to be an individual?
“We’re different,” comments their daughter Joan, as she explains to an acquaintance the importance of decorum. “We don’t believe in taking advantage of a situation. In grabbing for money.”
Left unspoken, of course, is that the Miltons don’t need to grab. They have money. That Joan directs her comment to one who is Jewish shines that light on who, in the Milton family’s world, is really thought to be “different.” And the origins of that family money? Best left unsaid, especially the business deal that enabled Ogden to buy the island.
By the third generation, with the family fortune divided and diminished, the Miltons must decide whether they can still afford to own Crockett’s Island. They each have a voice in the decision. It is, after all, a family decision. But their discussions reveal their different views of their family.
They discover that their childhood memories of summers on the island and the memories passed along to them by their parents and grandparents might not always be accurate. Fictional tales told with confidence, after all, have a way of becoming family history until few know what the truth really is.
But the truth has a way of coming to light and, while it might be harsh, they find it also provides opportunity.
Some readers might find it difficult to garner sympathy for the Miltons, buffered as they are by wealth and privilege. Instead, they might want to look upon the book as a timely metaphor for the American story.
The novel offers insight into a country with a complicated history of its own, one of capitalism built upon corruption, of privilege built upon oppression. As demographics change and societal expectations evolve with each generation, light finds its way into the cracks. Do we speak of these things? Or do we leave them unsaid?
By the end of the book, with generations of experiences laid out for everyone in the family to see, history professor Evie notes that telling the full story makes it real.
“There could be no more quiet.”