From Off Island, by Dionis Coffin Riggs, in collaboration with Sidney Noyes Riggs. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1940.
This is the 2016 facsimile edition of the novel first published in 1940 by McGraw-Hill’s Whittlesey House imprint, based on the life of Mary Carlin Cleaveland, the grandmother of author Dionis Coffin Riggs (1898–1997). In the fall of 1852, Mary Carlin, then 16, left her home in Sydney to live with her sister and brother-in-law in San Francisco. During a layover in the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), she met, fell in love with, and married James Cleaveland, a whaling captain from Martha’s Vineyard who was more than a decade her senior. Instead of San Francisco, she eventually made port in Holmes’s Hole (now Vineyard Haven), then a bustling center of the seagoing trades.
To say that Mary Ann Cleaveland, James’s mother, was not amused by her son’s impulsive marriage is to greatly understate the case. In the 19th century, and well into the 20th, Martha’s Vineyard was insular in more ways than one. Vineyard families were all interrelated, and anyone from “off” (now, as then, on the Vineyard “off” is frequently employed as a noun) was by definition beyond the pale. Mary Ann made young Mary’s life intolerable, and it got worse while James was away on his next whaling voyage. The younger woman escaped her mother-in-law’s petty but relentless cruelties by, in effect, adopting herself into another family. When James left again, his wife went with him. During the five-year voyage she gave birth to her older two daughters.
From Off Island vividly evokes life both on 19th-century Martha’s Vineyard and on board a whaling ship, all from the women’s perspective. The book is rigorously researched — the author’s husband, educator Sidney Noyes Riggs, was her collaborator — and the notes at the end on sources and how the Riggses found them make for fascinating reading. But newspapers and ship’s logs can tell only so much. It’s the poet-author’s imagination, skill with language, and deep knowledge of the Vineyard that bring both the people and the places to such vivid life. The book will be of special interest to anyone interested in whaling, New England (especially, of course, Martha’s Vineyard), and women’s lives in the mid-19th century.
Fans of Cynthia Riggs’s Martha’s Vineyard Mysteries will be interested to know that Dionis Coffin Riggs, the author of From Off Island, was Cynthia’s mother and the model for Victoria Trumbull, Cynthia’s intrepid 92-year-old sleuth.
The new edition of From Off Island is available at both Vineyard bookstores, Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books. Cynthia will be at the Thanksgiving weekend Artisans Fair at the Ag Hall, retailing this along with her own books, and it should shortly be available for mail order via her website.
Note: This review is very slightly adapted from the one I just published on Goodreads.