John Casey knows his way around a boat. He knows his way through the salt marshes of Rhode Island and the piers where the fishermen unload their catch. He can tie knots. Rumor has it that when he lived on Fox Island, Casey always knew if it was high or low tide, as if he had a sixth sense that pertained only to the ocean. His National Book Award-winning 1989 novel, Spartina, inhabits a fictional East Coast estuary and sketches the watermen who scratch out a living there. It is the tale of a man, his boat and his struggle against both the vicissitudes of nature and the encroaching gentrification of his fishing village.
Casey’s new novel, Compass Rose, revisits the salt ponds of Sawtooth Point and the families of Galilee, R.I. But the protagonists of this novel aren’t boat builders or commercial fishermen, rather they are schoolteachers, game wardens and cooks. They are mothers, wives and lovers. They are women.
Compass Rose proves that Casey also knows his way around children. He knows the uneasy ties between women in a love triangle. He can sing a baby to sleep. “I think my four daughters would laugh at any suggestion that I ‘understand’ women,” says Casey. “But with four daughters, one has to try.”
The new novel picks up right after the end of Spartina with a shift of focus from waterman Dick Pierce to his wife, May, and his former mistress, Elsie Buttrick. Each chapter of the book is written from the point of view of either May, Elsie or Mary Scanlon—a self-described old maid who cooks at the posh resort on Sawtooth Point and moved in with Elsie toward the end of Spartina. As Compass Rose opens, Elsie has just given birth to Rose, Dick’s child, and the fallout of the curtailed affair has settled over the Pierce family. Eventually, May learns to love Rose but struggles with her place in the community and the heart of her husband, who is as absent to her on land as when he’s at sea. When Rose grows into a talented but headstrong teenager, she butts heads with her mother, even as she becomes Elsie’s connection to the men and women she has lived among her whole life.
“The arc of Compass Rose is made up of a series of duets,” says Casey. “There is one between May and Rose. Miss Perry [schoolmarm and town benefactor] and Elsie. Between each of the five principle characters.” Indeed, the story is a web of interrelationships based on family, lust, grudges, friendship or debt, both literal and figurative—the stuff of gossip overheard in kitchens and the open secrets that make small towns a blessing and a misery.
Mary Scanlon articulates the different ways that men and women sustain their seaside community in her reaction to an act of physical bravery by Dick. She says, “Here it is—a moment of manly glory. And that’s it, it’s a flash. And there’s Elsie taking care of Rose for years. And Miss Perry as well. And here Dick is, the hero of the hurricane and now the hero of the shipwreck. A day then, a day now, and all the men cheer. Christ, I don’t know why we put up with you.”
In Susan Kenney’s New York Times review of Spartina, she writes, “It is this fearless romantic insistence on lyric, even mythic symbolism, coupled with the relentless salt-smack clarity of realistic detail, that makes Spartina just possibly the best American novel about going fishing since The Old Man and the Sea.”
Compass Rose possesses Spartina’s romanticism and lucidity, but this time Casey extols the daily work of raising children and years spent nurturing a husband, a friend or a neighbor. This, the book hints, just might be the deciding factor of our fates: other people, day in and day out.
Compass Rose consumed Casey on and off for 20 years, which he spent writing in a rustic cottage in his garden in Charlottesville and in a cabin that overlooks the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. His acquaintance with the characters who populate Sawtooth Point spans more than half his life. Not only are Spartina, Compass Rose and an as-yet-unpublished collection of short stories animated by them, but they spring from years Casey spent living in Rhode Island after studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Casey continued to write about Rhode Island long after his arrival at the University of Virginia in 1972, where he’s a professor in the creative writing program.
“Rhode Island is even smaller than Delaware, but it is like a border terrier—a very big dog in a small dog’s body,” says Casey. “I love it; it’s variously beautiful, polyglot and salty.” He and his young family moved to Fox Island in 1968, and it was there that he really learned his way around a boat. It was also where he learned to sing his daughters to sleep.