Everybody elsewhere knows all about Martha’s Vineyard. They’ve read about it on the newspapers. They’ve seen it on TV. The president vacations there, right?
Plenty of books mention the Vineyard, or use it as a backdrop. Few are those that see Martha’s Vineyard from the inside.
These books are precious. Such a one is Kevin Parham’s The Vineyard We Knew: A Recollection of Summers on Martha’s Vineyard (Plymouth, MA: Pria Publishing, 2014). Shelve it next to Through a Ruby Window, storyteller Susan Klein’s tales of growing up on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1950s and ’60s. On the other side put Jill Nelson’s Finding Martha’s Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island.
Halfway through the book the chapter “Turbulent Times” reminds us what was going on in the wider world, but the heart of The Vineyard We Knew is a kid’s-eye view of the island in the late 1950s and especially the ’60s. Every summer Kevin, his older siblings Joanne and Chuck and younger sister Dierdre, and their cousins Charlene, Vince, and Carmella, come from the Boston area to stay with their grandmother, Caroline “Carrie” White. The first chapter, “Beginnings,” recounts the journey they made every year, from Boston to Woods Hole, across Vineyard Sound on the ferry, and finally to Carrie’s little house on Pacific Avenue in Oak Bluffs.
As vividly evoked in the book, both the house and Nana, as Carrie was known to her grandkids, are more than a little scary. The house is forever leaking, sagging, or threatening to collapse. Nana is a strict disciplinarian with a leather strap hanging ready on the wall for anyone who challenges her authority, especially at the supper table. One evening Nana comes home from having a few cocktails with a neighbor. She’s “beyond the point of being tipsy — she was stone drunk,” Kevin remembers. She’s too inebriated to notice that a dirty rag has made its way into the chicken she has prepared for supper, and too stubborn to see it when Charlene points it out. Charlene’s ingenuity saves them all from “rag-encrusted chicken.”
Nevertheless, the adult reader can’t help marveling that every summer, for the whole summer, Nana takes as many as seven grandchildren into her tiny home so that the kids will be supervised while their parents work. And while Nana herself works, as cook to a wealthy white family on East Chop.
Not closely supervised, mind you. During these decades, summer vacation was a long stretch of days for kids to explore and have adventures — not only on Martha’s Vineyard but where I grew up west of Boston. Kevin Parham’s memoir includes a couple of incidents that could have had dire results. Cousin Carmella, clearly a rebel, sneaks a boyfriend into the house. Six kids go bike riding on pitch-dark East Chop and almost get hit by a car.
In general, though, the worst threat is that of Nana’s leather strap. At first, Kevin — the next-to-youngest of this band of cousins — tags along behind the older kids. They go swimming and clamming; they spook each other in nearby Oak Grove Cemetery. Then he’s biking around the island on his trusty three-speed, alone or with his siblings and cousins. On an expedition with cousin Vince to watch the ferry come into Vineyard Haven, Kevin hits the front brakes too hard and flies over the handlebars. Bruised and scraped and berating himself for his foolishness, he bikes home with Vince. Nana swabs his wounds with hydrogen peroxide. The next morning he’s out biking again.
The Vineyard We Knew winds down as Kevin reaches adolescence: first car, first romance . . . One January in the early 1970s, Kevin, now a budding teenage musician, returns with his R&B band to play a dance at the island’s youth center, on State Road at the head of Main, where Edu Comp is now. Despite a blown fuse that temporarily silences the electric instruments, the gig is a success. Significantly, it’s a visit to off-season Martha’s Vineyard that makes Kevin think that “there might be something to this music thing.”
He went on to become a professional musician as well as an executive and, now, an author. And his relationship with Martha’s Vineyard has continued to this day.
Because of the memoir’s tight focus on the child’s Vineyard summers, we don’t learn much about Beatrice, Kevin’s remarkable mother, until the very end of the book. In October 2008, the cousins, other family members, and friends gather for Bea’s memorial service, in an Oak Bluffs Victorian with a view of the ocean. Part of Kevin’s eulogy for her is reprinted here. It makes clear that though we didn’t see much of Bea in the book’s earlier chapters, she was never far away.
The Vineyard We Knew can be ordered through Pria Publishing, its publisher.
Kevin Parham will speak about his book on July 24, 6:30 p.m., at the Oak Bluffs library. The setting couldn’t be more appropriate: the library was built on the site of Nana’s house, which was destroyed by arson in 1994. On the library grounds, there’s now a bench dedicated to the memory of Carrie White and her daughter Bea.
Reblogged this on Kevin J. Parham and commented:
I’d like to thank Susanna Sturgis for her wonderful review of “The Vineyard We Knew—A Recollection of Summers on Martha’s Vineyard.” Her candid assessment is greatly appreciated!
Hello there, Susanna –
I would like to thank you for your wonderful review of my book! I could not have asked for a more in-depth, objective opinion of this work. It’s clear to me that you not only read the entire book, but that you internalized it and conveyed your views in manner that reflects the true essence of the story—a skill that is rare these days.
Thanks for a great review, Susanna, and, thanks again for your early support—it was greatly appreciated! BTW, I’ll be looking for that bright-red hat on the 24th (should you decide to wear it!) Looking forward to meeting you…
All my best,
Thanks so much! I think I will wear that hat. It doesn’t get to go to town very much. I look forward to meeting you — and to sitting on that bench.
I will be on the Vineyard at that time and if I do get to the reading I will introduce myself. Thank you for another review, I look forward to reading the book. Joan and I became friends because of our love for the Vineyard and I long for books from true islanders experiences.. it’s why I enjoy your blog too!
Definitely introduce yourself! In case it’s crowded, I might wear something obvious, like my red sun hat. 😉 There’s another wonderful Vineyard book coming out this summer, a collection of personal essays and photographs by my friend Shirley Mayhew, whose writing has appeared in both island papers, Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, and this blog. She moved to the Vineyard as a young wife in the late 1940s and has been here ever since, raising three kids, teaching school, and having some interesting adventures abroad. It’s very, very cool.
What a wonderful read! I look forward to that as well. I would love to retire to the vineyard, atleast for warmer months, but real estate in recent years has gotten so crazy that it’s most likely out of our comfort zone. I often wonder what natives to the island must feel about the housing market now that it has become THE tourist and Presidential destination and spiked the market so. Perhaps you’ll write a blog post on that very thing some day? …
I read this book as well and reviewed it also… it was a treat to read and brought back memories of my own summers growing up on the Vineyard in the 50’s. 🙂
I noted back in June that you’d reviewed it, but when I know I’m going to review something, I don’t read other reviews till I’ve written mine. So I just went and “liked” yours. 🙂 I also read Skip Finley’s excellent piece in the Vineyard Gazette: http://mvgazette.com/news/2014/05/15/vineyard-life-not-often-revealed?k=vg537803160346c
Are you coming to Kevin’s talk on the 24th? Maybe we can meet in person! I haven’t met Kevin face to face yet either.
I kind of figured it was because you were going to review Kevin’s book that you didn’t read mine, I would be the same way.
I’d like nothing better than to be at Kevin’s talk on the 24th and also to get to meet you but I won’t be on the Vineyard unfortunately. Maybe another time it will work out.
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