“The loblollies off Hail Point, the spars and poles of the oyster dredgers “ are what Edward Mason and his elderly cousin Miss Mary Bayly can see from the porch of the Mansion House. She is dying and is in the process of deciding to bequeath him Mason’s Retreat, her land beside the Chester River, in Queen Anne’s County, which her life’s work has been to turn it into a model dairy farm.
Edward is shown around the farm by its manager, Mr. French, a wise man loyal to the land, and to those who worked, black and white. During the course of the tour he learns more than he really wants to know about his ancestors and the land where they have lived since l657.
Edward learns of Miss Mary’s grandfather, who in 1857 sold the slaves too old or too young to be of use, to a dealer in Virginia for “30 cents on the dollar”. His 15 year old daughter Ophelia watched their sad procession to the boat which carried them down the river. She tried blotting out this shameful memory by turning her back on the Retreat. As soon as she was old enough she left the farm for social life in Baltimore and later Paris.
In one of the most engaging section of this book Tilghman writes of two young boys, Thomas Bayley,(Miss Mary’s brother) and Randall Terrell, (son of the Retreat’s black orchardist), and the adventures they had as they played pirates in the orchard, collected pebbles in the river, flung jellyfish at each other and hid from Beal, Randall’s kid sister. For them that time The Retreat was Eden.
Ophelia’s scientist husband Wyatt Bayley, challenged by the Retreat’s acres of fallow, riverside fields, decides to plant them with peach trees. Then a blight begins to kill thousands of peach trees on farms all over the Shore, breaking the heart of Wyatt who was unable to discover a cure and has to burn the orchard that was his pride and his life’s work .
It is Mary who remains loyal to the land. She spends her life restoring it to productivity through her dairy operation.
This novel has the sweep and depth of one of the great engrossing 19th century novels – Dickens, Eliot, even Tolstoy. A large cast of vital characters play their parts in a beautifully observed Shore, while the shadows of disease, racial prejudice, greed and war flicker over them like heat lightning.
How fortunate we readers are who live here, and can learn of the history,and the heartbreak as well as the beauties of our world in The Right-Hand Shore.