Mount Holyoke’s own Professor Corinne Demas has done it again with her latest Young Adult novel, Returning to Shore. Not only is this story a tender coming of age story, it also speaks to the struggle of navigating daughter-parent relationships of all kinds.
The novel opens with slightly naïve, teenage Clare as she prepares to leave behind her mother, and her mother’s latest husband, to reconnect with her biological father on the marshy lands of Blackfish Island, a fictional place inspired by the Lieutenant Island of Wellfleet on Cape Cod.
Though Clare has not seen her father since she was a toddler, and their relationship is plagued with awkwardness, Clare’s relationship with her mother Vera is far from easy. Vera’s overbearing desire for control of Clare and her seeming indifference toward Clare’s feelings creates a struggle between mother and daughter that is all too familiar to anyone whose parents have separated. Additionally, Clare must battle with her feelings of loyalty and affection for her stepfather, Peter, and her father, Richard. Demas’ rendition of the complex relationship is eloquent, allowing her character’s actions and lack of communication to convey their emotions.
Demas’s prose is light, simple and manages to convey the hypnotic, salty-scent of the marsh air that comforts Clare in just one brief line. Demas’ own time spent on the Cape is clear through her direct and overwhelmingly accurate depictions of life as a “Fleetian,” or someone from Wellfleet, Mass. It’s the little details that manage to capture the alluring enchantment of Cape Cod: the unlocked door to Richard’s house, his desire to take the scenic route rather than the Mid-Cape highway to his house and the young boy, riding his bike barefoot and without a helmet.
The novel is truly about Clare’s attempt to reconnect with Richard, a man who is as complicated as he is problematic for Clare. From his sexuality, to his passionate love for the endangered Tarapin turtles that call Blackfish their home, Richard is full of surprises that Clare would never have expected.
The subtle details of Clare and Richard’s growing relationship help the story to blossom, but this relationship is also tested by the other teens Clare meets on the island. Not only do they make Richard out to be a crazy person for his obsession with preserving nature, but they mock the vibrant gay and lesbian community of Provincetown. Clare is struck dumb at their hurtful words, and her tears over her new “friends’” behavior are symbolic of the larger theme of complicated love.
Savannah Marciezyk: Were you apprehensive about including a gay character in a novel in the YA genre? What lead you to that decision, ultimately?
Corinne Demas: Not at all apprehensive. I don’t see this as an “issue” novel at all, I see this as a girl and a father coming together to build their relationship. The fact that Richard is gay is only one thing about him. I know many young people who have gay parents. I think it’s a very timely subject. But I don’t want the book to become [only] about this issue. I think that contemporary fiction doesn’t have to deal with the issues of the time, it just has to be aware of them.
SM: What ties do you have to the Cape that led you to make it the backdrop to your novel?
CD: I love the Cape, and I think in itself it is a metaphor. It is a place that is environmentally very sensitive, beautiful and in danger. It speaks to a variety of human issues, and is where society’s values are really at the forefront. I think a lot of things going on in the world happen more intensely on the Cape. [In reference to the lack of cell service on Blackfish, and in many places on Cape Cod]: If young people are always talking and connecting with their friends, they’re less in a position where they have to connect with people in real life. I really wanted to have Clare and her father deal with each other. When Clare’s in trouble and when she’s thinking it over, she can’t spend hours on her phone talking it over with her friends, she has to deal with it herself. I wanted Clare to really be in the trenches with her emotions.
SM: Additionally, why turtles?
CD: I took a Field study course with Wellfleet Audubon society. I teach English, but I’m really interested in Environmental Science also. I was kind of moved by the plight of the turtles, and it seemed to me to have wonderfully metaphorical possibilities of young people, out on their own, abandoned and having to make it. I wanted [Richard’s interest in turtles] to be something Clare would find kind of bizarre and off-putting, but that she would grow to see his passion.
SM: Why did you choose to focus on parent-daughter relationships?
CD: I’m a daughter, I have a daughter, my daughter has a daughter. I think parents are extraordinarily important. Clare’s family is incredibly complex. She has a lot of parental [units]. She has a mother who has reinvented herself a lot of times and has not been a perfect mother in a lot of ways. I think [that issues with] parent[s are] the center of a lot of difficulties for a lot of young people. Many young people have relationships with parents that are not ideal, but how do you bypass those flawed relationships? I’m very interested in that decision that young people make to try to put in the effort [to strengthen a child-parent relationship]. To me talking is so important, and Richard doesn’t talk much. To me that is the perfect example of lack of communication. I want [Clare and Richard] to have each other…it requires a leap of faith. I have a lot of Mount Holyoke students who come to me and talk about these issues. This is something they’re going through a lot.
The Mount Holyoke English Department will host a reading and celebratory party honoring the release of Returning to Shore on Tuesday, April 1 at 4:15 p.m. in the Stimson Room. Demas will also be on a panel on Young Adult novels at The Odyssey Bookshop on April 12 at 4 p.m.