May 2021

Margreete’s Harbor

By Eleanor Morse
Review by
Like a good visit with family or dear friends, Eleanor Morse’s novel will leave you satisfied while yearning for more.
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Eleanor Morse’s precise, patient prose captivates from page one of her fourth novel, Margreete’s Harbor, as she describes an early winter morning for an elderly woman named Margreete. At home on the Maine coast, Margreete heats up some bacon drippings and retrieves her slippers, but while she’s sidelined by a dead mouse that the cat brought in, poof—her stove catches fire. That fire leads to big changes, as Margreete’s daughter, Liddie, and her family must move from Michigan to look after Margreete in Burnt Harbor, Maine. 

Beginning in 1955 and continuing through 1968, this is a bighearted, multigenerational saga with a simmering social conscience, as Margreete; Liddie; her husband, Harry; and each of their three children wrestle with their secrets and desires. Morse chronicles big and small moments equally well, the sum of which can make—and sometimes break—a family. 

Burnt Harbor is “the tiniest eyelash compared to the great eye of the ocean beyond,” and Morse expertly plays with this perspective, showing how global events seep into every molecule of the family’s life. For example, with dogged determination, teenager Bernie tries to head to Washington, D.C., to join Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, partly motivated by his realization that he loves his best friend, a Black boy named Noah. A few years later, Harry chains himself to a White House fence to protest the Vietnam War—at a moment when Liddie desperately needs her husband by her side.

Margreete’s Harbor is also a particularly tender portrait of a family faced with dementia. All three grandchildren safely confide their greatest secrets to their grandmother, sure that she won’t remember their confessions. But Margreete still has wisdom to share, and when Bernie is just a boy, she advises, “When you grow up, don’t ever try to love someone you don’t love. And don’t ever try to not love someone you do love.” 

Of course, things aren’t always rosy. By moving to Maine, Liddie must leave behind her spot as first cellist with the Ann Arbor Symphony. One of the grandchildren must stop Margreete from jumping out a bedroom window, and Harry has a secret rendezvous with a nurse he encounters in the emergency room. As Morse writes, “Unless you live in a cave by yourself and speak only to the chickadee, life is messy, because humans are messy.”

Full of love, triumph and a boatload of heartbreak, Margreete’s Harbor is a celebration of life’s inevitable messiness. As after any good visit with family or dear friends, you will leave feeling satisfied while yearning for more.

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Margreete’s Harbor

Margreete’s Harbor

By Eleanor Morse
St. Martin’s
ISBN 9781250271549

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