I secretly long to live in New England. Wethersfield, Connecticut would be my first choice. Old Saybrook, Connecticut—home of Katherine Hepburn—comes in as a close second. Cape Cod, Nantucket, Boston, a lighthouse in Maine—I bet I could think of a novel or poem that takes place in each of these places. It’s all part of the romanticism conjured up by New England based literature.
Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman contributes to this romantic image. This is a collection of 12 interconnected short stories set in a white clapboarded Cape Cod farmhouse surrounded by a sea of unrelenting sweet peas and located at the edge of the world. During the American Revolution, the farmhouse was built by a fisherman as a present to his beloved wife. The fisherman and his sons were tragically drowned sea, leaving the wife waiting desperately by the coast for their return. The blackbird, a pet of her 10 year old son, returns as a white specter, a sign that her husband and sons will never come home. In her sorrow, the wife plants sweet peas that grow so wildly that the house becomes submerged in pink and white.
The next inhabitant of Blackbird House is an embittered whaler who lost his leg to a giant halibut but finds love with a strange woman rumored to be a witch. She arrives at his doorstep wearing bright red shoes; at her insistence, he plants a pear tree bearing blood-red fruit.
This is just a small sampling of the different stories contained within Blackbird House. As with any short story collection, there are the strong and memorable stories that hold together the weaker links. My favorite stories in this collection are the ones in which the characters are more developed or the images are so unique and compelling that they jump out at you (The Edge of the World, The Witch of Truro, Insulting the Angels, Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair, and Wish You Were Here). The weakest link in this collection is India, a story about a girl resenting her pot-smoking father—this story seemed a bit out of place in this collection about whalers, sailors, witches, and ghosts.
Be that as it may, what you can expect to take away from Blackbird House are images of beached whales singing or moaning their dying song, blueberry brambles, Egyptian waterlilies, and reading ghost stories by the light of fireflies.
Unlike reading novels, I read short stories like amnesia. I’m prone to forget the names of characters and major plot points of most of the short stories I encounter. But one thing I do take away from short stories, granted they are good stories, are images. Years from now, I may not be able to recite the plot of most of the stories in Blackbird House, but I’ll not likely forget the call of the whales or the incandescence of fireflies.