It’s the little things that make this family story come to life

In “Margreete’s Harbor,” Eleanor Morse shows a Maine family in the 1950s and ‘60s navigating the joys and struggles of everyday life.

St. Martin's Press
“Margreete's Harbor” by Eleanor Morse, St. Martin's Press, 384 pp.

It starts with a fire, one that destroys the kitchen and could easily have burned down the whole house. Margreete knows that she has to call her daughter and tell her what happened. She knows she’ll have to admit that she started the fire when she forgot that she’d left the pan on the lit stove. And although Margreete fiercely resists, it is clear that everything in her life is about to change.

In her novel, “Margreete's Harbor,” Eleanor Morse weaves a story about the experiences of three generations of a family as they grapple with life’s changes and navigate their relationships. Set largely in the 1960s, the cultural upheavals of that tumultuous decade provide a striking backdrop for an intimate story about what it means to be a family. Characters wrestle with questions about responsibility and independence, about holding on to a sense of individuality while still wanting to be a part of the whole.

“I burned down the kitchen,” Margreete tells her daughter, Liddie, when she finally calls her in Michigan. “And then I caught fire.” As Liddie tries to grasp the details of exactly what happened and whether her mother is now safe, Margreete refuses each of her daughter’s suggestions. No, she doesn’t want a neighbor to come check on her. No, she doesn’t want to stay at a motel. She doesn’t need the kitchen, she insists. She hates cooking. “I didn’t want to tell you what happened,” Margreete tells Liddie. “Don’t boss,” she adds just before cutting off the call.

As Liddie hangs up the phone, the conversation leaves her bewildered and she has no idea how she should respond. As a professional cellist living the “large life” that her parents had wanted for her – that they had raised her to achieve – she realizes that her mother should no longer live alone, and that finding the next steps will be her responsibility. But what can Liddie do from halfway across the country? Besides, she has to prepare for concerts. But the confused woman who called her is her mother, and Liddie knows she must act.

When she discusses the dilemma with her husband, Harry, a politically active high school teacher, he resists Liddie’s idea of moving to Maine and living in the same house as her mother, who doesn’t even want them there. But when Liddie suggests she and their young children might go for a while and test the waters, so to speak, Harry realizes his marriage is more important to him than where he’s living. He admits that life is about weighing priorities and making choices. So Liddie and Harry uproot their lives and move their young family to the sprawling house on Maine’s coast.

The story follows the family through the next 10 years, through experiences as simple as spending mornings together making banana pancakes to stressful days spent navigating the professional consequences that come from participating in an unpopular antiwar protest. Each member of the family, including the children, makes choices and deals with consequences – including how best to address Margreete’s decline. In a family, after all, decisions do not occur in a vacuum and individual choices impose upon the others. 

There is nothing particularly special about this family or their experiences, but the book’s plot and circumstances are not what make it shine. Instead, it’s the literary quality of the story: Readers will be captivated by scenarios and dilemmas that seem familiar even if the details are different from their own lives. With engaging characters and lovely prose, Morse reminds us that it is the simple, everyday experiences that become treasured memories. And she fully captures what it means to be a family.

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