Nostalgia for the ’60s and the dramatic changes that era brought to American society is the central point in Anne Korkeakivi’s new novel, Shining Sea. One of the unique aspects of this story is the death of 43-year-old Michael Gannon from a heart attack in the opening chapter. The significance is that Michael is very much a main character, making his death particularly surprising.
His absence in no way diminishes his presence and his standing in the lives of the family he left behind. His wife Barbara, pregnant with the child Michael will never meet, finds herself lost in the wake of her husband’s death, questioning how a housewife with no job or profession will support her home and children. However, Barbara receives an offer of marriage from local air conditioning impresario> Ronnie McCloskey a few years after Michael’s death, an offer she accepts initially because of her precarious situation. Barbara quickly realizes that this relationship is very different from the one she had with her first husband, and as time passes, their marriage opens a path to a different kind of affection, also involving a complicit guarding of each other’s secrets.
Michael’s death also transforms the life of his children, Patty Ann, Luke, Michael Jr., and Francis, in ways beyond the sadness and shock left in the wake of his loss. They are suddenly unable to talk to their mother or each other, creating gulfs between them but conversely giving way to new relationships and different forms of love. Their new blended family is as much Americana as apple pie and Coke, shifting, changing and transforming through the decades as Barbara, her children, and her grandchildren create a legacy from the life and also the death of Michael Gannon.
In an email interview, Anne Korkeakivi delves more into the topic of the American family and how devastating events can unexpectedly bring forth a new kind of heroism.
This is quite a different novel compared to An Unexpected Guest, your previous work. What made you decide to make a family your central topic this time?
An Unexpected Guest is very much focused on one person and takes place over 24 hours in Paris; Shining Sea is about a large family, takes place over 50 years, and spills out across America and then across the Atlantic to Europe. The same length in pages but very different—yes! Shining Sea was inspired by a question that haunted me: What effect does conflict have on society in general and families in particular? All the choices that I made in creating the story, including the characters and focus, grew from there.
Everyone is affected in some way or another by the death of Michael, the family patriarch. Is this a particular observation on how in the ’60s the family nuclei revolved around the father/husband?
Shining Sea explores the effect of historical events on families, some of which are colossal—such as the Vietnam War—and some of which are subtler, such as the post-WWII reinvention of American family life that left many women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. For example, Barbara, the young widow, suddenly finds herself a single mother in the 1960s.
As a war bride, she has no education and no career, but she does have five kids to care for; I wanted to look at what options would be available to a woman in her position. But Michael Gannon’s shadow in death looms large most of all because of the person he was in life—someone who survived the most horrendous human experience imaginable as a POW in the Pacific during WWII and emerged a hero.
Barbara chooses to remarry mainly because she has no means to support herself and her children without Michael. Would you say she made the right choice, marrying without love?
There are all kinds of love in this world and it would be unfair to say that Barbara’s second marriage is loveless. She does initially respond to the overtures of her second husband, Ronnie, for the sake of her family—not just financially but also to provide them with a father figure of sorts. But the result is first a great friendship and then a strong marriage. It’s not the same sort of marriage as she had with Michael, but Barbara herself says that she would never want to try to replace Michael; he was her great love, and she accepts that. And Ronnie loves Barbara too, although, for reasons only later revealed, also not with the same type of passion.
The novel fluctuates between distinctive historic events such as World War II, Vietnam, and Woodstock. Is it safe to say that these events shape the novels’ characters into who they ultimately become in the end?
The Gannons are a large family, and each member responds to the historic events that appear in the novel—from the ones you mention, through the Whittier Narrows earthquake in ’87, the AIDS crisis into the ‘90s, and so forth up until 2015—in his or her own individual way. Do these historic events form the Gannons’ characters or do they make manifest each of the Gannons’ already imbedded characters?
Is how the Gannons interact with one another and the rest of the world a reflection of the times they live through? Is a combination of these three true? We may think we are remote from larger conflicts and historical events in which we aren’t directly, personally involved. In my opinion, that is a false sense of separation.
Ronnie, Barbara’s second husband, has his own powerful reasons for marrying her, which are not revealed until the end. Is their marriage a sort of mutual protection?
Ronnie and Barbara definitely love each other but, yes, absolutely, their marriage offers mutual protection. Ronnie wants a family. He wants a partner. He wants a home life. He wants a sense of “normalcy.” Barbara, whose spirit and beauty he cherishes, offers him a chance to have it in a world that would otherwise have left him out in the cold. Single mothers with large families and no working income certainly can also find themselves very much on the outside.
The word “hero” is mentioned quite a lot: first applied to Michael as a POW and his bravery in World War II but further on, there’s evidence of heroism in other members of the family as well. Would you say this is accurate?
As with love, there are many faces of heroism. It’s hard to talk about more specifically about in the case of Shining Sea without creating spoilers but, absolutely, many characters in the book evince some form of heroism—although not necessarily similar to Michael’s enormous heroism in surviving and saving the lives of many others as a POW in the Pacific during WWII. The question of heroism—the cult and the quest, its many forms—is central to the novel.
Which character did you feel the most connection with?
Francis was always the pivotal character in the novel for me—I often felt as though I were in his very body while writing him—and his struggle was the starting point of the book. Barbara has such an insuppressible character that she insisted upon joining him as the novel’s second narrator voice.
Francis is burdened with an extraordinary beauty, and my guess is, although he is a man, every woman will relate to his battle with constant physical objectification. Barbara’s persistence and resilience speak volumes as well. But ultimately all of the characters are independent beings, and none resembles or represents me. All are dear to me. Well, except for Patty Ann’s first husband. He’s a jerk.
What message is there in Shining Sea for readers?
The working title of Shining Sea was An American Family. I don’t want to write a polemic novel, which can be tiresome, but I did want to explore what it is to be an American family in the last half-century and whether it is possible to remain impermeable to any of the struggles of our times. Respect for the earth we live on, the battles of our fellow humans and, certainly, armed conflict are never to be taken lightly.