Author Vanessa Veselka’s latest novel, “The Great Offshore Grounds,” tells the story of sisters Livy and Cheyenne as they set out to claim an unusual inheritance from their estranged father.
The book explores how individuals begin to navigate ethics and emotions until they find where in the world they belong.
Veselka will discuss the book with Northwest Passages Book Club coordinator Kristi Burns at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
The following excerpt is from Chapter 12, “Ribcage”:
The college where Jackson taught was on the perimeter of a town with brick houses that had been built on foundations that sloped following the drop of a creek. Snowy hillsides in winter, canopies of green, the foliage of fall, it cut down through mineral-rich black earth and struck the bone undercarriage of an enormous bleached ribcage. That’s where the whale was. You could track the spine straight back up the hill to where the town fathers had planned their homes; they were well safe from floods but not from erosion, as far above the creek sings to the slope its cradlesong. If you cannot reach the hill, the hill must come to you … And now there are no right angles to the town’s rooftops, only tendencies toward them; there are no surrounding mountains, only the roots of mountains worn away. Carved in salt and light, a white schematic on a white page, invisible as Wonder Woman’s plane, the town was reminiscent of its source, though it no longer reflected it.
For Cheyenne, it was the site of a personal explosion of assumptions and aesthetics. It had gone off inside her like a nail bomb. Constructed of James Taylor, maple syrup, Celestial Seasonings tea boxes, “Little House in the Big Woods” … it was a supernova of subterranean longings. It had blown with incredible force. Enough for the blast to send her backward through a wall into a room with a wood floor and a wood stove surrounded by ceramic cookware and trays of whole wheat spinach lasagna. At first, it had sated a deep hunger for something she was convinced was unnameable, but in the end, it did have a name. The students she met called it whiteness. According to them, it was everywhere on her and in her. A new unspeakable shame to lay over the other shames she knew. But it was her reaction that did the damage. Moving from one body to another, one dorm room to another – she already felt so out of place – and when the dust from that nail bomb settled, the town was still serene, the college was still sacrosanct, Jackson was still willing, but she had stepped into a wasteland.
She hadn’t been back since.
“I can’t tell if it’s creepier to be here and not tell Jackson or to tell him and not see him,” said Livy when they got out of the car.
Cheyenne stopped in front of a shop window filled with colonial antiques.
“Jackson’s parents’ house is full of this stuff.”
Next door was a sandwich shop where they got morning glory sunflower seed muffins and ate under a mural of Frodo smoking a pipe.
“I can’t imagine you living here,” said Livy.
Cheyenne waved at the room. “These people run the world.” “Not my world,” said Livy.
“Don’t kid yourself.”
There was a crack of thunder, and a heavy East Coast rain began. By the time they got to the car, they were soaked. But the rain wasn’t cold, and the wet earth smelled like life.
“You drive,” said Cheyenne. “I want to be able to hide if I need to.” Cheyenne directed Livy up the hill toward the college. As they got closer, Cheyenne sank lower until her knees were on the car floor and her back arched up over the seat.
“Stop at the convenience store and get beer,” said Cheyenne. “It’ll be on the left. They’ll have something cheap.”
“You’re a sinkhole of cash,” said Livy, but she stopped.
Livy ran in and came back with a six-pack. She pulled a beer from the plastic noose and handed it to Cheyenne, who was still on the floor but had repositioned herself so that her stomach and elbows were on the seat.
“It’s out of your share,” Livy said.
“Fine. Go to the top of the hill, make a left, and it’s about a mile down.”
The rain, which had paused for a few seconds, came down harder, beating the windows and hood. Livy slowed to 10 miles per hour.
“Do you see a spire?” asked Cheyenne. “I don’t see anything.”
Cheyenne opened a beer and held it out to Livy. “I don’t want open beers if we get pulled over.” “Down it. I downed mine.”
“What’s in your hand?” “Your beer,” said Cheyenne. “In the other hand.”
“My second beer. These things are mostly water.”
Now slowing to a stop in the downpour, Livy took the beer and chugged it without taking her eyes off the windshield. She handed the can back to Cheyenne, who crushed it into a disk and stashed it under the seat.
“I see the spire,” said Livy.
Cheyenne opened a third beer. “It’s made of elephant tusk and England.”
“Would you stop with the beer?” said Livy. “It’s your turn to drive.”
Coming over the rise, Livy saw the cathedral library and its surrounding orchards blown pink with cherry blossoms.
“Wow,” she said. “It’s like pictures of places like this.” “That’s deep.”
Students ran between buildings in the rain. Women played lacrosse in a spray of mud on a field by a glade. Pulling back out onto the road, Livy drove a mile, then rolled onto the shoulder, took a beer and drank it.
“Your turn.” She got out and Cheyenne came around.
“Man. I think I’m drunk on two beers. I feel like such a lightweight,” said Livy.
Cheyenne put both hands on the steering wheel but didn’t move. “I’m drunk, too.”
“You said you were fine!”
“It hadn’t hit me,” said Cheyenne.
“I would never have had another beer if you weren’t going to be able to drive.”
“It’s your fault for starving us.”
Cheyenne watched the rain splatter. She put the car in drive and lurched onto the road.
“I have to go apologize,” she said. “ Please just leave it.”
“He deserves an honest apology,” said Cheyenne, making a hard right at the next corner.
Jackson’s house was back up in the woods. Cheyenne turned by a mailbox and drove a quarter-mile up a driveway, then stopped within sight of the house and turned off the car.
“I’m sure he heard us,” said Livy.
“No, he didn’t. I can’t even tell when this car is on.” Cheyenne looked at the porch through the woods.
A light in the house came on. Cheyenne froze. Jackson stepped onto the porch. In the shade of the forest, she could see him. Light pierced the clouds, painting him white and black, sharp and beautiful like an old woodcut.
Cheyenne put her hand over Livy’s mouth. Jackson looked around, then went back inside.
“This is stupid,” said Livy. “I’m driving.”
Cheyenne crawled over the gear shift into the warm wet seat where her sister had been. Livy backed down the driveway, pulled out and drove toward town.
“Future Chinese minister of agriculture,” said Cheyenne. “Saudi overlord.”
“How do we get back to the highway?”
“Turn left. Shark tank, think tank, President Whatever. Lobsters. Alan Watts.”
“Are you all right?” asked Livy. “I hate this part of the country.”
Livy, though, had never been to New England. She’d never been east of Idaho. When the rain cleared, she rolled down her window and let in the honeysuckled breeze. Green hillocks and ponds cut out against a robin’s-egg blue sky, a color so saturated and unnervingly homogenous and vivid that the whole landscape seemed shot on a green screen, an absolute chromatic shunting parallel. They drove through mill towns named after sunken frigates. Lowell, Massachusetts, the City of Spindles where women wove slave-picked cotton to scratchy cloth, struck for wages, were crushed and went back to weaving again.
Oh! isn’t it a pity, such a pretty girl as I–
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh! I cannot be a slave,
I will not be a slave …
For I’m so fond of liberty
That I cannot be a slave …
Coming into the capital, Livy and Cheyenne hit rush hour. The effects of alcohol wore off, and they arrived at the temple itchy and dirty.
They got out of the car. They stood before the door.
Burnished streets of Boston, flooded with gold-orange late-afternoon light. Moving through honey, every hesitation crystallizing them, they stepped into the entranceway.
Excerpted from “The Great Offshore Grounds” by Vanessa Veselka. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2020 by Vanessa Veselka.
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