Malaga Island Has Gone from Dark Secret to Source Material

Once a hushed secret, the state's dehumanizing treatment of Malaga's mixed-race community is finding its way into the culture through art, poetry, and literature. But can creative interpretations obscure the hard-won truth?

Photographed for a story about Malaga Island residents in an issue of Harper’s Monthly, in 1909. Photo from the collections of Maine Historical Society.

By Jaed Coffin
From our January 2023 issue

This month, author Paul Harding is out with his third novel, This Other Eden. Like Harding’s most well known previous work, the 2008 Pulitzer Prize–winning Tinkers, it’s a slim, lyrical volume, full of contemplations on the nature of art, existence, and the passage of time. The story begins in the spring of 1911, in the mixed-race community of Apple Island, Maine. The residents, descended from a common ancestor of ambiguous African origin, are painters, storytellers, carpenters, and mystics. Their primary contact with the outside world is through a Christian missionary. Soon, a state-sanctioned eviction, driven by racism and greed, threatens to destroy the community. With each passing day, it’s clear the narrative arc is not bending toward justice.

The front pages of This Other Eden (Norton, $28) contain a disclaimer that the story is a “work of fiction,” most of the characters “are products of the author’s imagination,” and any resemblance to real individuals is entirely “coincidental.” But that’s followed by an epigraph pulled from the website of Maine Coast Heritage Trust about the history of one of the organization’s conserved properties, Malaga Island.

Harding stumbled onto the history of Malaga Island a decade ago. Reading about 19th-century mixed-race communities, he came across an article that ran in this magazine in 1980, “The Shameful Story of Malaga Island,” by William David Barry. That story was the first known treatment of the community’s swept-under-the-rug history, chronicling the lives of residents and their eventual forced displacement. In his first reading of Barry’s article, Harding says, one detail in particular stood out: that several of the evicted islanders were subsequently committed to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded. That’s the same place a character in Tinkers, based on Harding’s grandfather, risks being institutionalized after an epilepsy diagnosis.

Courtesy W. W. Norton.

But Harding was careful not to get lost in the archives. “I try not to do a lot of research, because I want the imagined story to have its own critical mass, its own momentum,” he says. “The story starts to dictate its own needs.” As Harding worked through drafts and imagined new scenes, he found himself infusing his vision of Malaga with familiar motifs from Moby-Dick, the Old Testament, and Hamlet. Harding says this was his way of bringing the island’s marginalized past closer to the center of history.

Harding is not, by any means, the first artist or writer inspired by Malaga Island. The earliest contribution to the growing canon was Gary Schmidt’s young-adult novel Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, which, in 2005, was named a Newbery Honor Book. The story, since adapted into a popular children’s play, is about the friendship between a girl from Malaga and a boy from the mainland town of Phippsburg. It erroneously describes the island residents as escaped slaves, although, at the time of its publication, speculation persisted that early Malaga residents were either descended from or were themselves escaped slaves. Research has since shown that they were free people, who settled on Malaga not to avoid reenslavement but rather some of the discrimination they faced just across the water.

A lesser-known novel, Dis Place, by the late Cundy’s Harbor author Matthew Herrick, arrived in 2008, funded by a Maine Arts Commission grant and published posthumously by Will-Dale Press, in Bowdoin. Dis Place is a lean but deeply researched book, informed by conversations Herrick had with descendants and other elders in his community who had inherited stories of the island but, like most people, until then remained silent about its past. In recent years, two more novels — The Rattled Bones and Shadows in Our Bones — set their stories against the backdrop of Malaga history.

Kingfield librarian and current Maine Poet Laureate Julie Bouwmsa published a poetry collection, Midden, in 2012, reimagining the experiences of island residents in verse. Then came the visual and performing arts. Re.past.malaga, by Bates College American Studies professor Myron Beasley, was a performative meal held on Malaga, adapting the slave tradition of holding a repast to honor lives and memorialize loss. Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates’s Amalgam, shown at the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris, responded to the island’s history using a mix of sculpture, film, theater and dance described by one critic as “sorrowful and remorseful reflection.” Portland-based artist Daniel Minter’s series of Malaga Island paintings, first shown at the University of Southern Maine Art Galleries, integrate artifacts from the island — buttons, broken kitchenware — with silhouetted portraits. These artists all worked closely with historians and descendants to understand the lives and legacies of Malaga’s people.

In 2020, the reggae-rock band State Radio released a ballad, “The Story of Benjamin Darling,” that retells the likely apocryphal origin story of Malaga Island’s founding father.

For years, Harding worked on the manuscript of This Other Eden in creative isolation — discussing it with no one, allowing himself only limited exposure to the decades’ worth of research, by historians, archaeologists, and genealogists, that followed Barry’s original article. Eventually, Harding changed the name of Malaga Island to Apple Island and the name of Benjamin Darling to Benjamin Honey. Another family on the island, perhaps inspired by the real-life Marks, is the Larks. The McKenneys seem to have morphed into McDermotts.

Harding’s novel is, after all, a novel — following in the tradition of historical fiction, even if names are changed. An odd aspect, though, is that some of the book’s fictions were once held up as fact. In the early 20th century, state officials, local landowners, and yellow journalists pushed false narratives of squalor and incest to justify removing Malaga residents. In the novel, histories of incest haunt the Honeys and the Larks, cursing them with emotional traumas and physical maladies. The Apple Islanders live in sordid conditions — one man wears rags and a gingham dress; children sleep among their dogs; a girl’s diet comprises robin eggs, raw starfish, and tree bark.

“The documentary and archaeological evidence refutes all of these myths,” says state archivist Kate McBrien, who curated Fragmented Lives, a past exhibition about Malaga at the Maine State Museum. “The people of Malaga Island lived just like their neighbors on the mainland.”

Copies still exist in archives around the state of a black-and-white postcard of an old woman on Malaga Island, sitting in a rocking chair with a child in her lap. They’re outside, surrounded by a wooden fence. The photograph was staged, McBrien says. The subjects had been positioned behind the fence to appear as if they lived among their livestock. In the years leading up to the eviction of island residents, these postcards and other racist ephemera were circulated to sensationalize and demonize the island’s residents.

During the early phases of drafting This Other Eden, Harding found himself contemplating the photograph. The child is Pearl Darling, according to McBrien, and the woman holding her may well be her grandmother, Elizabeth Darling. The woman reminded Harding, in some ways, of his own grandmother. Something about the way she seemed to stare back at the invisible photographer with suspicion and defiance captured his imagination. It was, he felt, as if she were asking, “What are you taking my picture for?”

Read the 1980 Down East story that brought the obscured history of Malaga Island back into the light.