Compass Rose, by John Casey

by Robert A. Parker

This 2010 work is a beautiful novel, and just my kind of novel. It became so on the very first page, as the key women of the novel attend a boy’s baseball game. Casey was perhaps comfortable with these women because he was so familiar with them, since they are characters we first met in his novel Spartina, which I so enjoyed and which won the National Book Award in 1989.

And I, too, was comfortable, for I encountered here a family group and their neighbors in a small Rhode Island town who regarded the world and each other with the same generosity and sensitivity with which I regard the world myself. Whether or not Casey was raised a Catholic, and even though there is no element of religion here, there is a sense of values that fully matches my own.

A compass rose is a marking on a compass that helps one orient oneself by showing the cardinal (north, south, etc.) and intermediate bearings of the compass. This novel is called Compass Rose, because the fulcrum of the story is a girl named Rose, as she grows from an infant to a woman heading off to college. This Rose is the illegitimate daughter of Dick, the main character of Spartina who is married to May, and Elsie, with whom he had a tempestuous affair in the first novel.

The title is doubly appropriate, because Dick earns his life at sea, where a compass is so necessary, and his daughter Rose is the character who brings together, who helps orient, the lives of everyone in this book.

While this is a continuation of Spartina, one does not need to have read that work to understand or enjoy this novel. It is entirely self-contained. And because it takes place across 18 years, it develops its own reality, its own frame of reference. Indeed, the events here read not like the plot of a novel but like actual life in this small community. It is primarily the story of Elsie and her daughter; of Elsie’s friend Mary who lives with them and sees the importance of Rose getting close to her father; and of May, Dick’s wife, whose acceptance is needed to bring Rose close to her father.

But there are also other important characters, many of whom are involved in a conflict between the long-time residents of South County and a luxury development at Sawtooth Point that wishes to expand by taking over the home of Dick and May, as well as other local property. The developer, Jack Aldrich, is married to Sally, who is Mary’s sister. Jack is the closest to being the villain of this novel, but he is so intent on doing good in his own terms that everyone finds it difficult to dislike him. The fisherman Dick is not a prominent character, since he is often at sea, nor are his sons Charles and Tom. This is the story of the women, and it is told from their point of view.

If the sea was prominent in Spartina, it is the woods, marshes and salt ponds that provide the natural element in this novel, a setting that stands in for the natural evolution of life, growth, decay, and death. These ponds and woods are beautifully described, and are a haven for Elsie who is a local nature warden.

Elsie has been introduced to this natural world by the elderly Miss Perry, her former teacher and another prominent character. Indeed, in her final days, Miss Perry commissions Elsie to become the conscience of the region, much as she herself was, in face of the proposed takeover by the encroaching Sawtooth Point.

There are many developments in this novel. The first is the bringing together of Rose, Elsie, Mary, May, and Dick. The second is the fate of Miss Perry. The third is the departure of Mary from Elsie’s house and her discovery of love. There are also minor dramatic elements, such as when Charles is injured at sea, when Dick ‘s boat sinks and he needs to be rescued, and when Rose earns the role of lead singer in her high school musical. But overall, from early on, hangs the shadow of the Sawtooth takeover of the property of these longtime residents.

Jack Aldridge, who runs Sawtooth, is an interesting character, complex on one level but mainly a shallow foil when compared to the women of the novel. He has an ambitious dream that he convinces himself will enhance the community, and he plots and maneuvers to have his way. Yet one doubts that Casey intends him as a true villain, based on the fate Jack encounters on the final pages. Indeed, those final pages reverberate with the sympathy Casey has for all his characters, and particularly the women.

The novel winds down with, first, Rose’s performance, and the negative reaction of Elsie, who just does not understand that her daughter has the same independence of spirit her mother had when she challenged convention in her affair with Dick. Slowly, Elsie realizes her own frustrations prompted by both the need to share Rose with others and the expansive maneuvering of Sawtooth Point that threatens everyone who matters to her.

Indeed, there is a final gathering of all the characters, as a resolution to the Sawtooth incursion is achieved. Ironically, or realistically, this resolution reflects the inevitability of human as well as natural evolution. It is another way of saying that we are all involved with each other and must bend to each other’s needs.

Dominique Browning, in her beautiful review in the Times, writes: “This bit of a world is complete unto itself, with its own force fields, its own variations on true north, its own way of tilting into alignment. Like the love affair that is the novel’s magnetic pole, Compass Rose gathers its quiet strength from a slow accretion of instants of intimacy, ‘both ferocious, and serene,’ moments that bubble up, collapse, and decompose in the natural order of things, on their way to becoming the history of a place.”

Another reviewer says that this is the second volume of a planned trilogy. Could the final volume revolve around the expansion of Sawtooth Point? I would indeed be interested in a concluding volume, for this work is far superior to anything else by Casey. But we surely cannot wait another 20 years for this 75-year-old author to produce such a work. (June, 2014)