Alice Hoffman, the best selling author of such books as "The Drowning Season" and “River King," weaves her trademark magical touches into her 22nd book called "Blackbird House." The book is a collection of short stories that center around a farm house on Cape Cod, and the joys and sorrows of its inhabitants over the years. She was invited on “Today” to talk about her latest book:
It was said that boys should go on their first sea voyage at the age of ten, but surely this notion was never put forth by anyone's mother. If the bay were to be raised one degree in temperature for every woman who had lost the man or child she loved at sea, the water would have boiled, throwing off steam even in the dead of winter, poaching the bluefish and herrings as they swam.
Every May, the women in town gathered at the wharf. No matter how beautiful the day, scented with new grass or spring onions, they found themselves wishing for snow and ice, for gray November, for December's gales and land-locked harbors, for fleets that returned, safe and sound, all hands accounted for, all boys grown into men. Women who had never left Massachusetts dreamed of the Middle Banks and the Great Banks the way some men dreamed of hell: The place that could give you everything you might need and desire. The place that could take it all away.
This year the fear of what might be was worse than ever, never mind gales and storms and starvation and accidents, never mind rum and arguments and empty nets. This year the British had placed an embargo on the ships of the Cape. No one could go in or out of the harbor, except unlawfully, which is what the fishermen in town planned to do come May, setting off on moonless nights, a few sloops at a time, with the full knowledge that every man caught would be put to death for treason and every boy would be sent to Dartmoor Prison in England — as good as death, people in town agreed, but colder and some said more miserable.
Most people made their intentions known right away, those who would go and those who would stay behind to man the fort beside Long Pond if need be, a battle station that was more of a cabin than anything, but at least it was something solid to lean against should a man have to take aim and fire. John Hadley was among those who wanted to stay. He made that clear, and everyone knew he had his reasons. He had just finished the little house in the hollow that he'd been working on with his older son, Vincent, for nearly three years. During this time, John Hadley and Vincent had gone out fishing each summer, searching out bluefish and halibut, fish large enough so that you could fill up your catch in a very short time. John's sloop was small, his desires were few: he wanted to give his wife this house, nothing fancy, but carefully made all the same, along with the acreage around it, a meadow filled with wild grapes and winterberry. Wood for building was hard to come by, so John had used old wrecked boats for the joists, deadwood he'd found in the shipyard, and when there was none of that to be had, he used fruitwood he'd culled from his property, though people insisted applewood and pear wouldn't last. There was no glass in the windows, only oiled paper, but the light that came through was dazzling and yellow; little flies buzzed in and out of the light, and everything seemed slow, molasses slow, lovesick slow.
John Hadley felt a deep love for his wife, Coral, more so than anyone might guess. He was still tongue-tied in her presence, and he had the foolish notion that he could give her something no other man could. Something precious and lasting and hers alone. It was the house he had in mind whenever he looked at Coral. This was what love was to him: when he was at sea he could hardly sleep without the feel of her beside him. She was his anchor, she was his home; she was the road that led to everything that mattered to John Hadley.
Otis West and his cousin Harris Maguire had helped with the plans for the house — a keeping room, an attic for the boys, a separate chamber for John and Coral. These men were good neighbors, and they'd helped again when the joists were ready, even though they both thought John was a fool for giving up the sea. A man didn't give up who he was, just to settle down. He didn't trade his freedom for turnips. Still, these neighbors spent day after day working alongside John and Vincent, bringing their oxen to help lift the crossbeams, hollering for joy when the heart of the work was done, ready to get out the good rum. The town was like that: for or against you, people helped each other out. Even old Margaret Swift, who was foolish enough to have raised the British flag on the pole outside her house, was politely served when she came into the livery store, though there were folks in town who believed that by rights she should be drinking tar and spitting feathers.
John's son Vincent was a big help in the building of the house, just as he was out at sea, and because of this they would soon be able to move out of the rooms they let at Hannah Crosby's house. But Isaac, the younger boy, who had just turned ten, was not quite so helpful. He meant to be, but he was still a child, and he'd recently found a baby blackbird that kept him busy. Too busy for other chores, it seemed. First, he'd had to feed the motherless creature every hour with crushed worms and johnnycake crumbs, then he'd had to drip water into the bird's beak from the tip of his finger. He'd started to hum to the blackbird, as if it were a real baby. He'd started to talk to it when he thought no one could overhear.
"Wild creatures belong in the wild," Coral Hadley told her son. All the same, she had difficulty denying Isaac anything. Why, she let the boy smuggle his pet into the rooms they let at the Crosbys' boarding house, where he kept the blackbird in a wooden box beside his bed.
The real joy of the house they were building, as much for John as for anyone, was that it was, indeed, a farm. They would have cows and horses to consider, rather than halibut and bluefish; predictable beasts at long last, and a large and glorious and predictable meadow as well. Rather than the cruel ocean, there would be fences, and a barn, and a deep cistern of cold well water, the only water John's boys would need or know, save for the pond at the rear of the property, where damselflies glided above the mallows in spring. John Hadley had begun to talk about milk cows and crops. He'd become fascinated with turnips, how hardy they were, how easy to grow, even in sandy soil. In town, people laughed at him. John Hadley knew this, and he didn't care. He'd traveled far enough in his lifetime. Once, he'd been gone to the island of Nevis all summer long with the Crosbys on their sloop; he'd brought Coral back an emerald, he'd thought then that was what she wanted most in the world. But she'd told him to sell it and buy land. She knew that was what he wanted.
They moved into the house in April, a pale calm day when the buds on the lilacs their neighbors had planted as a welcome were just about to unfold. The house was finished enough to sleep in; there was a fireplace where Coral could cook, and the rest would come eventually. Quite suddenly, John and Coral felt as though time was unlimited, that it was among the things that would never be in short supply.
"That's where the horses will be," John Hadley told Coral. They were looking out over the field that belonged to them, thanks to those years John had spent at sea and the emerald they'd sold. "I'll name one Charger. I had a horse called that when I was young."
Coral laughed to think of him young. She saw her boys headed for the pond. The blackbird chick rode on Isaac's shoulder and flapped his wings. It was their first day, the beginning of everything. Their belongings were still in crates.
"I'll just take him with me and Vincent this one time," John said. "I promise. Then we'll concentrate on turnips."
"No," Coral said. She wanted three milk cows and four sheep and her children safe in their own beds. She thought about her youngest, mashing worms into paste for his fledgling. "Isaac can't go."
By then the brothers had reached the shores of the little pond. The frogs jumped away as they approached. The blackbird, frightened by the splashing, hopped into the safety of Isaac's shirt, and sent out a small muffled cry.
"He's like a hen," the older brother jeered. At fifteen, Vincent had grown to his full height, six foot, taller than his father; he was full of himself and how much he knew. He'd been to sea twice, after all, and he figured he was as good as any man; he already had calluses on his hands. He didn't need to go to school anymore, which was just as well, since he'd never been fond of his lessons. "He doesn't even know he can fly," he said of his brother's foundling.
"I'll teach him." Isaac felt in his shirt for the blackbird. The feathers reminded him of water, soft and cool. Sometimes Isaac let the chick sleep right beside him, on the quilt his mother had sewn out of indigo homespun.
"Nah, you won't. He's a big baby. Just like you are. He'll be walking around on your shoulder for the rest of his life."
After that, Isaac brought the blackbird into the woods every day, just to prove Vincent wrong. He climbed into one of the tall oaks and let his legs dangle over a high limb. He urged the blackbird to fly away, but the bird was now his pet, too attached to ever leave; the poor thing merely paced on his shoulder and squawked. Isaac decided to name his pet Ink. Ink was an indoor bird, afraid of the wind, and of others of his own kind. He hopped around the parlor, and nested beneath the woodstove, where it was so hot he singed his feathers. He sat on the table and sipped water from a saucer while Isaac did his studies. It was a navigation book Isaac was studying. The Practical Navigator. If he was not as strong as Vincent, or as experienced, then at least he could memorize the chart of the stars; he could know the latitude of where they were going and where they'd been.
"Do you think I could teach him to talk?" Isaac said dreamily to his mother one day. Ink was perched on the tabletop, making a nuisance of himself.
"What would a blackbird have to say?" Coral laughed.
"He'd say: I'll never leave you. I'll be with you for all time."
Hearing those words, Coral felt faint; she said she needed some air. She went into the yard and faced the meadow and gazed at the way the tall grass moved in the wind. That night she said to her husband again, "Don't take him with you, John."
April was ending, with sheets of rain and the sound of the peepers calling from the shore of the pond. Classes would end in a few days, too — they called it a fisherman's school, so that boys were free to be sent out to work with their fathers or uncles or neighbors from May till October. The Hadleys left in the first week of that mild month, a night when there was no moon. The fog had come in; so much the better when it came to sneaking away. The British had lookouts to the east and the west, and it was best to take a northerly route. They brought along molasses, the fishing nets, johnnycake, and salted pork, and, unknown to John and Vincent, Isaac took along his blackbird as well, tucked into his jacket. As they rounded the turn out of their own harbor, Isaac took his pet from his hiding place.
"You could do it now if you wanted to," he said to the bird. "You could fly away."
But the blackbird shivered in the wind, startled, it seemed, by the sound of water. He scrambled back to the safety of Isaac's jacket, feathers puffed up, the way they always were when he was frightened.
"I told you he'd never fly." Vincent had spied the blackbird. He nudged his brother so that Isaac would help check the nets. "He's pathetic, really."
"No, he's not!"
By now they were past the fog that always clung to shore at this time of year, and the night was clear. There were so many stars in the sky, and the vast expanse of dark and light was frightening. The water was rougher than Isaac had ever seen it in their bay, and they were still not even halfway to the Middle Banks. The sloop seemed small out here, far too breakable.
"Is this the way it always is?" Isaac asked his brother. He felt sick to his stomach; there was a lurching in his bones and blood. He thought about the oak tree and the meadow and the frogs and the way his mother looked at him when he came in through the door.
"It's the way it is tonight," Vincent said.
Used to the sea, Vincent fell asleep easily, but Isaac couldn't close his eyes. John Hadley understood; he came to sit beside the boy. It was so dark that every star in the sky hung suspended above the mast, as though only inches above them. Isaac recognized the big square of Pegasus that he'd seen in his book. The night looked like spilled milk, and John Hadley pointed out Leo, the harbinger of spring, then the North Star, constant as always. John could hear the chattering of the blackbird in his son's waistcoat. He could taste his wife's farewell kiss.
"What happens if a storm comes up?" Isaac said, free to be frightened now that his brother was asleep, free to be the boy he still was. "What happens if I'm thrown overboard? Or if a whale comes along? What happens then?"
"Then I'll save you." When the wind changed John Hadley smelled turnips, he really did, and he laughed at the scent of it, how it had followed him all this way to the Middle Banks, to remind him of everything he had to lose.
Excerpted from Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman Copyright © 2004 by Alice Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.