We Shall Not All Sleep: A Novel

  • By Estep Nagy
  • Bloomsbury USA
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Michelle Meyers
  • September 1, 2017

An unsettling summer drama where family ties will be put to the test.

Summers whiled away at beach homes and mountain getaways are often the subject of envy for folks not fortunate enough to indulge in such luxuries. But at Seven Island off the coast of Maine, the setting of Estep Nagy’s debut novel, We Shall Not All Sleep, the sought-after peacefulness of the typical getaway is troubled by the complications of familial disharmony and deeply buried secrets.

Seven Island is home to the estates of both Jim Hillsinger and Billy Quick, whose relationship with one another deteriorates after they marry socialite sisters Lila and Hannah Blackwell. Marrying sisters is obviously not an automatic harbinger of family discord, but after getting together, Hannah and Billy soon estrange themselves from the rest of their relatives as Hannah becomes more involved with the Communist Party.

She and Billy move to Harlem, where Hannah works as a teacher for underserved children. Even as her involvement in the Communist Party wanes, she and her husband are to eventually face drastic repercussions during the era of McCarthyism.

Later, during the summer of 1964, tensions have risen between the two families as Jim Hillsinger is forced to leave the CIA under suspicion of treason, causing him to wonder if Billy has betrayed him, and/or if his wife, Lila, may have been involved in some capacity.

In the meantime, Billy’s wife, Hannah, is now long deceased, her death linked to the increasingly aggressive interventions of the FBI with regard to her previous Communist ties. Both families, however, have continued to visit Seven Island each summer and to engage in the ritual of watching the sheep’s release to greener pastures in the process known as “the Migration.”

A rotating panoply of children who sleep in the cottage find themselves cared for by the families’ servants and staff, and the Old Man, Jim Hillsinger’s father, keeps a watchful eye over all of the island’s happenings. With language that could be likened to water in its fluidity, and suspense built through flashbacks set up against the present-day action, this novel functions with both impressive clarity and the subtle, shadowy lingering of the 1950s’ Communist paranoia.

The subplot perhaps requiring the greatest suspension of disbelief (or evoking the most questions) deals with Jim Hillsinger’s 12-year-old son, Catta, who, partway through the novel, is to be left on a neighboring island for 24 hours to test his survival skills.

It’s a bit unclear as to the reasoning behind this decision — is it born out of a desire from Jim Hillsinger to get back at Lila? Or out of a genuine conviction that this experience will make Catta more fit to be a man in this world?

The logic isn’t entirely decipherable, and the stakes are low, given that Catta could go for 24 hours without food or water and still make it through to the next day. Nevertheless, it is engaging to witness Catta’s youthful boldness in deciding that, not only will he spend the night on Baffin Island, but, in an act of rebellion, he will attempt to cross through its near impenetrable forest:

“[Catta] slid forward on his stomach, and when that was blocked he stood up and took half-steps to one side and lowered himself down again, through the spikes. He paid for every inch of progress. Feeling a void at head height above him, Catta threw a leg up and onto a higher branch and climbed over, landing carefully, avoiding the sharp leaves. He no longer had any real bearings, not the Big Dipper or anything else.”

Transcending the mere narrative of an inter-family rivalry, We Shall Not All Sleep uses the developed nuance of its prose to create a psychological investigation into the choices and behaviors of its protagonists, mirrored by the complexity of a decade on the brink of bringing about everlasting change.

Michelle Meyers is the author of Glass Shatters, published by She Writes Press. She is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Alabama.

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