In novel ‘The Right-Hand Shore,’ past is a burden

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“The Right-Hand Shore” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Christopher Tilghman: “A place like this holds history,” observes Wyatt Bayly, the new master of a vast Eastern Shore estate known as the Retreat. “It drives you back into the past just living here.”

In a different context, a young girl named Beal, descended from slaves on the place, tries to move beyond old customs and laments, “We don’t care about all this history.”

The past has a way of making hearts ache in Christopher Tilghman’s excellent novel “The Right-Hand Shore.” Set in Maryland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his story explores the desires that drive people to try to overcome the past. Their efforts are all the more difficult because they keep looking back on the paths already traveled instead of the ones ahead of them.

Retreat matriarch Mary Bayly is dying in the family mansion in the late summer of 1920, a circumstance she hardly would have imagined years earlier when she was eager to flee the Eastern Shore. A visit from a distant relative to whom she is considering bequeathing the Retreat leads to a series of recollections about Mary and her parents, Wyatt and Ophelia Bayly, and her younger brother, Thomas, as well as Beal and her brother, Randall.

Tilghman, who directs the creative writing program at the University of Virginia, is a short story writer as well as a novelist. Many chapters in his new book could nearly stand on their own as captivating glimpses into the relationships _ white and black, owner and workman, man and woman, parent and child _ that revolve around the Retreat.

Those relationships are central to the personal histories that cannot leave the Retreat any more than the land itself. Everything exists in the shadow that fell on that day in 1857 when Mary’s father sold nearly all his slaves because the coming war would free them anyway. Families were broken apart and some considered the Retreat forever cursed.

Then there’s Wyatt Bayly’s quiet fanaticism for planting peach trees, guided by his confidence that science would overwhelm any opposition from nature. And the doomed innocence of Thomas and Randall’s friendship and their in-tandem education, an experiment that Wyatt Bayly oversees without regard for the blight that society is likely to attach to it.

Tilghman’s skill at presenting the clashing points of view for his characters is matched by his ability to evoke their place and time, whether it’s a Catholic girls school in Paris or a black village on the peninsula called Tuckertown. There’s never a false note, either, only poignant and surprising ones that linger long after the last page.

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Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press).

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