Author On the Bookcase: Christopher Tilghman

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The Right-Hand Shore



Please welcome Christopher Tilghman, author of The Right-Hand Shore, to On the Bookcase! He tells us how his upbringing inspired this novel.



I grew up in the Boston area, the son of a publishing executive, but from my first years my family spent the summers on our ancestral farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. This is a low, flat landscape where the land ends and the water begins almost seamlessly; all the vistas are longitudinal, broad fields, the sweep of rivers and inlets, near distant points of land where loblolly pines still cling to life on uncertain footings, and in the far distance, the Chesapeake Bay (above, the view across Chester River to Hail Point, 1910). The first Tilghman, a Catholic refugee from England, waded ashore in 1657, and Tilghmans have remained there ever since, fortunes rising and falling, clinging to their own part of the New World.

By the late 1940’s when we started going there, the farm — the main house, the dairy, the barns and outbuildings, the grounds — had fallen into decay. Indeed, it had fallen back into the nineteenth century, with farming done as much with mules as tractors, milking by hand with the iconic milk buckets set out in the sun for pickup, no electricity. When we summered in the main house, which was called the Big House, we scavenged a crude but comfortable existence out of the forgotten detritus of a once very fashionable estate. If we had any question about what had gone on there in the past, all we had to do was walk into the family graveyard, ten feet from the house. What information those gravestones did not provide was lushly and constantly filled in by the stories and the legends that seemed as much a part of this farm as the buzz of the locusts in the trees, the sting of jellyfish in the river, and the sweet tang of cow manure whenever the wind came out of the east.

In my new novel, The Right-Hand Shore, my character Edward Mason spends an entire day listening to tales and ends up feeling “mauled by the past.” For my brothers, and me this immersion in stories was a more gradual process, but all-pervasive. Some of these stories, about suicides and watchful ghosts and betrayed ambitions, were within the purview of the Big House and my privileged forebears. And some were tales of loved ones sold South during slaveholding times, of the rising tide of Reconstruction and the abyss of Jim Crow, all told in whispers by the black families that mostly in bondage and servitude, had shared every piece of the history, side by side, day in and day out, with the Tilghmans for 300 years.

The Right-Hand Shore opens with its own conclusion: a meeting on a porch in a vast estate on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay in1920. What is happening involves the same set of circumstances of my earlier novel Mason’s Retreat: the dying maiden owner of the estate, Miss Mary Bayly, is interviewing distant cousin Edward Mason in an attempt to determine whether she will bequeath the farm to him as a direct descendant of the original Mason immigrant. Mason’s Retreat moves forward in time from this meeting; The Right-Hand Shore goes back in time to discover how this situation has come to pass.

Of all the family tales I have drawn from in both these novels, this is the one that is most factually accurate. It was in this manner that my grandfather, a bit of a rogue and an infinitely self-centered man, secured the ownership of the farm in 1918 from his cousin, Miss Susan Williams. “Miss Sue” was a fabulously wealthy Baltimorean recalled to this day as reformer and philanthropist on both shores of the Chesapeake, but remembered less warmly by descendants of her servants and laborers as a harsh mistress. This sentiment was summed up in an insult scratched in a pane of glass: “Susan Williams 2-faced.” Miss Sue hung over my childhood experiences on the farm just as the trials and mysteries of Miss Mary hangs over The Right-Hand Shore: how did it come to this, a wealthy society lady from Baltimore running a dairy farm across the Bay?

In The Right-Hand Shore we learn that Mary had a brother, Thomas, who, as the son, was the designated heir to the estate. In the novel, had he still been on the scene, there would have been no reason for Edward Mason to assume ownership, and Edward and his family would have been spared some of the sorrows that occur in Mason’s Retreat. But the brother is no longer available, and in the novel, we discover why.

So it was in my family history that Miss Sue’s brother set in train some of the events in my life. The facts are in a clipping from the local newspaper: in September of 1895 a young man named Otho Williams, heir to the Tilghman estate, shot himself to death in a second-floor room overlooking the family burying ground. He was unmarried and left no issue.

The newspaper article suggests that this tragic event may have been a terrible accident whilst cleaning a firearm, but no one in my family and in the communities around us would have any of that: Otho Williams shot himself because he had fallen in love with a black servant and he was not allowed, by family or law, to marry her. As a child in the 1940s and 1950’s, the suggestion of a family suicide – complete with a bloodstain still visible on the floor under the straw matting – was rather titillating, but the theory that he had done it because of a forbidden love for a Negro woman just did not seem that remarkable. Falling in love seemed to me the sort of thing that might have happened on this place in the past, where blacks and whites, workers and owners, had lived and died in such intimate daily intercourse. What joined us was simply a matter of place, and the stories grew out of this land.

Visit Christopher's website for pictures!


Christopher TilghmanChristopher Tilghman’s life has revolved around his family’s farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. His new novel, The Right-Hand Shore and its sequel Mason’s Retreat tell the multigenerational story of a farm on the Eastern Shore modeled after his own. His other books include the novel Roads of the Heart, and the short story collections, In a Father’s Place and The Way People Run. Chris is a Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Virginia. He and his wife, the writer Caroline Preston, divide their time between Charlottesville and the Eastern Shore.

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