Pulitzer prizewinning writer Madeleine Blais has spent years examining the art of memoir writing with her journalism students at UMass Amherst, so it’s no surprise that “To the New Owners,” Ms. Blais’ memoir of a summer home on the Tisbury Great Pond, is not only an artfully curated exhibit of the writer’s souvenirs and memories, but one of the most heartfelt portraits of Martha’s Vineyard in print today.
“Nothing happens nowhere,” Ms. Blais often tells her students, to emphasize the power of place in memoir. In the case of “To the New Owners,” that place is Thumb Point, a rustic camp on a scenic finger of the Tisbury Great Pond, owned by Ms. Blais’ in-laws, former U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and psychoanalyst Lydia King Phelps Stokes. From her first visit to the shack in the mid-’70s — when she still could not believe her husband’s glamorous family had the kind of summer home with garbage bags across the ceiling to catch the rain — to her final glum days packing up the sold house in 2014, Ms. Blais crafts a mold from the deep imprint left on her psyche by a place which, for her, became synonymous with peace, beauty, friendship, and family. Her memories span from the sublime shock at being asked to lunch by famous neighbor Katharine Graham to the commonplace yet equally proud joy of a mother watching her children play on the beach.
The elegant prose is punctuated by excerpts from volumes of logbooks — years of rants, poems, reminiscences, and reports, which Blais, “possessed of an archival mentality,” adamantly encouraged. The logbook passages are telltales of life at the shack: directions for how to work the thingamajig that turns on the water, running counts of fish not caught, and entertaining reviews of the camp from a family friend who was an editor at Consumer Reports. “They were, for most everyone, the first item new arrivals sought out, lunging after them like gulls to crumbs, and writing in them was the last task, the final ritual, the blowing out of a kind of candle, before leaving,” Ms. Blais writes of the logs. In this way, the volumes became their own chronicle of the years on Island. Some labeled each summer categorically (“The Summer with No Water”) while others delve into the arcane (“What Is This Property Worth Anyway?”).
Ms. Blais found out just what the property was worth in 2014, when after Nicholas Katzenbach died, the usual complications forced the family to sell the home. The new owners, to whom the book is addressed, replaced the rustic shack with a 5,000-square-foot high-end home, complete with a lap pool. “As I was helping my husband pack up the house, I was flooded with mixed feelings,” Ms. Blais told The Times. “I was happy that we had the memories we had, and grateful for them, but I was also mourning. I didn’t want to overreact, but I felt a lot of sadness at the loss, and I wanted to write about that.”
The book is not only a lament for the property itself, but for a Vineyard culture eroded by the winds of time. “As my father-in-law is quoted in the book, ‘You can’t stop time,’” Ms. Blais said. “But I hope the Island figures out its true path in terms of how much it wishes to preserve and how much it wishes to expand.”
While writing, Ms. Blais was cognizant of the advice of a close friend, who warned, “You don’t want to write the ‘Lament of the One Percent.’”
“The important thing,” Ms. Blais said, “was for to me to make it clear how grateful I was for what I had been given.”
The author is also keenly aware of the hierarchies that exist on-Island, where authority is garnered from tokens such as an old phone exchange which proves your longevity. If her astute observations of Island life do not assert her authority to even the snootiest year-rounders, her passion for the Island surely will. “I love the Island; it means a great deal to me,” Ms. Blais said. “I’m just happy to be able to try to convey that to people.”
So strong is the grip of the Island on Ms. Blais that she once taught a seminar on Martha’s Vineyard at UMass, so her students could explore the power of place. She said getting her own readers to care about a place is not that hard when writing about the allure of coastal New England. “There is something sort of sacred about the water and how it makes you feel,” Ms. Blais said. “I think readers have a great sense of reverence about what it’s like to be in a peaceful environment where they can enjoy life.”
And in the end, that is Ms. Blais’ message to the new owners — less a barbed condemnation of their choice to build over someone else’s memories than a plea to appreciate the capacity for joy that seems to inherently exist on the banks of the Great Pond. In her rules for an “ideal guest” at the shack, Ms. Blais, quoting Kurt Vonnegut, urges visitors to “please notice when you are happy.” In the spirit of “To the New Owners,” she might add: Please notice where you are happy, too.
Madeleine Blais will appear at the “Islanders Write” conference on August 14.
Kelsey Perrett, a frequent contributor to The Times, was a student in Madeleine Blais’ memoir-writing class at UMass in 2012.