Rhode Island in the Limelight: Literature

Rhode Island in the Limelight: Literature

Curl up with the Ocean State.

Books on a bookshelf

Despite the best attempts of our respective secondary school teachers, we here at Quahog.org still enjoy reading. There's nothing quite like reading—or, given how hellacious traffic pileups have gotten along 95 in Providence, listening to an audiobook—especially if it features the smallest state with the longest name.

Following are some stories featuring the Rhode Island of literature, where Fosta-Glosta always has school, all the mayors are honorable, and posh ladies have Cranston accents.

For further information on Rhode Island-related literature, see Wikipedia's Rhode Island in Fiction or Goodreads' Books Set in Rhode Island.

Warning: Here there be spoilers!

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The Aberration

by Al Giannini (2000)

The Aberration book cover

A "tale of revenge, greed, and betrayal" set in Providence; based on the collapse of the Rhode Island Share and Deposit Indemnity Corporation (RISDIC) in late 1990.

Teaser text:

Rhode Island, 1990. A looming banking scandal is about to break wide open. At the center stands the scion of a powerful banking institution, heir to his father's fortune and position, but not to his values and principles.

Luco Parisi's scheme plunders the institution his father worked a lifetime to build, and threatens to bankrupt his father's legacy as well. With his deceit on the verge of being exposed, Luco sets into motion a carefully laid plan of evasion and escape, leaving behind a trail of financial devastation for thousands—including local mob boss, "Tubby" Bgnatore.

Before Luco escapes, he uses the little time he has left to settle some old scores. But revenge works both ways and the mob, it turns out, is the least of his problems. Luco is about to learn the painful meaning of vengeance—and retribution—from an unexpected adversary.

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The Age of Innocence

by Edith Wharton (1920)

The Age of Innocence book cover

A classic love triangle set against the backdrop of 1870s upper-class New York society. A portion of the novel takes place in Newport, Middletown, and Portsmouth, with specific references to the Newport Archery Club, Mill Street, Bellevue Avenue, Eastman's (Easton's) Beach, and Paradise Rocks (part of today's Norman Bird Sanctuary). A 1993 film version of the novel reportedly used Portsmouth as a shooting location.

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Airs of Providence

by Jean McGarry (1985)

Airs of Providence book cover

A collection of short stories set in Providence. From goodreads.com:

Providence—a city named in the hope that a direct compliment to God might place Him under some sort of obligation to its inhabitants—provides Jean McGarry with the fertile ground of her comic and gritty, harsh and touching cycle of stories. Weaving in and out of Airs of Providence is a novella telling the story of April and Margery Flanaghan, two sisters trying to grow up in this neighborhood and doing only a so-so job of it. And it is a job, in a world not clearly made for anyone, but better suited to an older generation. Surrounded by nuns and priests, uncles and aunts, biddies and oddballs, April and Margery do their best to be normal. They practice their penmanship, babysit, go to a prom, and try to be up to date. But how even to look normal in a world where you are always running up against uncontrollable mood swings, mysterious infirmities, unexplained sorrows?

Over a period of thirty-five years, they sniff out neighborhood scandals, get an "earful" of what the others are up to, and rest secure behind their sets of double curtains in the knowledge that everything human and frail is on the outside, everything blameless and perfect on the inside. If the Airs of Providence are sometimes rough, they are always funny. They may be sad too, but it is a dry-eyed melancholy that is no relation—or perhaps just a poor relation—to the air of "Danny Boy."

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An American Killing

by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (1998)

An American Killing book cover

A thriller set in Washington D.C. and the fictional town of New Caxton, Rhode Island. From Amazon.com:

A bestselling true-crime author, wife to a Washington insider, Denise Burke knows the facts behind the rumors, the stories behind the scandals. Now Owen Hall, a charismatic congressman, urges her to investigate a triple murder case that may have led to a wrongful conviction. But as she begins to penetrate the fateful events surrounding the years-old homicide, Hall suddenly begs her to stop. Yet Burke is in too deep. The stakes reach a deadly level when Hall dies in flagrante with a D.C. call girl—and Burke uncovers a chilling connection. Desperately pursuing a story of secrets, sex, and blood—not for profit, not for fame, but for her very survival—Burke exposes the terrifying truth about the most monstrous crime of all.

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Ariabella, the First

by N.A. Straight (1981)

Ariabella, the First book cover

A satirical novel set in Newport. From the dust jacket:

Susannah Machem Mortimer Glendenning, still in her early twenties, is taking a tram ride into her past, going back in time to try to discover what happened to the life of her only childhood friend, Ariabella, and at the same time, what has happened to her own life. Her trip leads inevitably to Inchiquin Farm, the vast estate on Narragansett Bay referred to in nineteenth-century society pages as a "summer cottage." Founded in the 1880s by the New York Schermerhorns, the maiden name of Susannah's mother, Inchiquin Farm is now a museum, a relic of a vanished aristocracy. But in Susannah's childhood, when she spent every summer there, it was the home of her two maternal aunts, Miriam Polk Schermerhorn French Goelet and Ethel Bolton Schermerhorn d'Ambroise Headley, and their children—Warrick French, a writer of Hollywood film scripts and more serious work; Courtlandt d'Ambroise, a success as both writer and Wall Street businessman; and the Younger Goelets—Savannah, Melanie, Giles, and Julien.

A contemporary New York Times book review noted that many believed the novel to be autobiographical, as it seemed to closely mirror author Nina Gore Auchincloss Steers Straight's relationships with her half-brother, Gore Vidal; her step-sister and step-mother, Jacqueline Onassis and Janet Norton Lee Bouvier Auchincloss Morris; and her close college friend Renata Adler (upon whom the title character was suspected to be based). Straight, however, denied any correlation between real life and her novel's characters.

Inchiquin is the name of a real Newport estate, located at the southern end of Cliff Walk, and now broken up into condos. But Inchiquin as described in the novel more closely resembles Hammersmith Farm, where Straight and Onassis spent a good deal of their childhoods.

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The Art of Keeping Cool

by Janet Taylor Lisle (2002)

The Art of Keeping Cool book cover

A historical young adult novel set in the fictional coastal community of Sachem's Head, Rhode Island. From the back cover:

Fear permeates the Rhode Island coastal town where Robert, his mother, and sister are living out the war with his paternal grandparents: Fear of Nazi submarines offshore. Fear of Abel Hoffman, a German artist living reclusively outside of town. And for Robert, a more personal fear, of his hot-tempered, controlling grandfather.

As Robert watches the townspeople's hostility toward Hoffman build, he worries about his sensitive cousin Elliot's friendship with the artist. And he wonders more and more about the family secret everyone seems to be keeping from him—a secret involving Robert's father, a bomber pilot in Europe. Will Elliot's ability to detach himself from the turmoil around him be enough to sustain him when prejudice and suspicions erupt into violence? And can Robert find his own way to deal with the shocking truth about his family's past?

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The Art of Murder

by Ted Holmberg (2013)

Art of Murder book cover

Detective fiction set in Providence, a followup to Holmberg's Murder Between the Sheets. Teaser text:

A killer stalks the hallowed halls of one of New England's most venerable art clubs but petite and streetwise state cop, Donna Pacheco, and her cohort Matt Borg, who fights to keep the smallest daily newspaper in the smallest state in the union alive, search even into the root cellar of the club to find the murderer...

The art club and the smallest daily newspaper are fictionalized versions of the Providence Art Club and the Providence Journal, respectively.

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Ask No Quarter

by George Marsh (1945)

Ask No Quarter book cover

A historical maritime novel partly set in 1600s Newport.

From a contemporary review in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review:

At the end of the seventeenth century, when Rhode Island was fighting for freedom against neighbor and foreign power alike, Hugh Jocelyn wedded his destiny to privateering. An innocent lad to mingle with sailors and pit his strength against the sea, he nevertheless persisted until eventually he commanded his own ship. George Marsh, like many another historical novelist, has sought to pack his book with adventure set against the background of the times. And he draws in his stage setting with some competence—taverns, blockhouses, white lawn cravats, greasy stocks, scheming barmaids and pure ladies, and battles at sea. Action is swift and constant, and right always triumphs over wrong. Following the romantic tradition, Ask No Quarter is more of an old-fashioned "thriller" than an historical novel. Students would be excited by it, but would gain little historically.
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The Autumn's Brightness

by Daisy Newman (1955)

The Autumn's Brightness book cover

This is the second in Newman's Kendal series, which takes place in the fictional Rhode Island Quaker town of that name. Like the first novel, Diligence in Love, the story explores relationships and Quaker values.

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Benefit Street

by David Cornel DeJong (1942)

Benefit Street spine

From Goodreads: "A novel set in an apartment house on Benefit Street in Providence, RI. DeJong introduces a wide cast of characters, all seeming to be heavily flawed, living their lives in the months leading up to the hurricane of 1938."

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Beside the Music

by B.J. Knapp (2015)

Beside the Music book cover

This humorous novel takes place mainly in the fictional Rhode Island town of Westwood, which, according to the author, "is based upon where I live in Western Coventry." The plot concerns a housewife, Brenda Dunkirk, who writes a fan letter to Kieth Kutter, the bass player from her favorite '80s metal band, Hydra. Innocent mid-life fangirling leads to the whole band setting up camp in Brenda's home while they work on their comeback album. As thrilling as the situation is for Brenda, it complicates her life and creates friction between herself and her husband, Tim.

"Tim is a mechanic, and owns his own shop on 'Orchard Street' in Westwood, which is basically Tiogue Ave. in Coventry," Knapp told us in an email. "I never actually specified the name of the town where Brenda works, but it's a mash-up between the old mill building area of East Greenwich, and the bustling fishing boat docks of Point Judith. There is a beach within walking distance of her office where a Portuguese couple runs a clam shack, which is kind of like Blount's Clam Shack in Warren." While most Ocean State references are fictional, "Brenda does buy burritos from Cilantro's. And Cilantro's is a real place, that I happen to love. (You can't go wrong with Mexican Subway!)"

[It was a real place, with seven locations around the state, but in November 2017 they announced on Facebook that they were closing up shop after nearly thirteen years.]

"But," Knapp concludes, "one of the most uniquely RI things about Beside the Music is that the owner of the recording studio, and personal friend of Brenda and Tim, is named Del."

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by Michael Knight (2003)

Goodnight Nobody book cover

The lead story in Michael Knight's [no known connection to David Hasselhof] collection Goodnight Nobody sets up a premise that pet parrots let loose in Rhode Island spend their winters in Elbow, Alabama:

Between the months of April and September, Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is inhabited by several generations of African parrots... But in September, when winter creeps in from the ocean and cold air kindles hazy instincts, the parrots flee south for warmer climes...

There is a grain of truth in this. The descendants of escaped parakeets, not parrots, do live in Rhode Island, but they don't migrate. The last known colony of the birds was located in Riverside, near the Crescent Park Carousel.

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Blood Red

by James A. Moore (2005)

Blood Red book cover

A vampire tale set in fictional Black Stone Bay, Rhode Island.

Teaser text from earthlingpub.com:

The land along the shore of Black Stone Bay is filled with sharp, dark granite teeth for which the area gets its name. From its cliff walk along the black sand to the mansions and manors that date back hundreds of years, the town has all the charm anyone could hope for and all the wealth anyone could ever need. For the most part, the people of Black Stone Bay are happy with their lots in life.

Halloween in Black Stone Bay is usually a celebration. This Halloween, however, there's a chill in the air that has nothing to do with the coming of autumn and the death of the year. This year, the children dressed as monsters, clowns, and cowboys will be fighting for their lives and hiding wherever they can. This year, the beaches of Black Stone Bay will be washed in the blood of its people and the streets will be strewn with their mortal remains.

Night after night, the people of Black Stone Bay will learn the meaning of fear, and grow to dread the setting sun...

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Blue Moon

by Luanne Rice (1993)

Blue Moon book cover

Domestic novel about a working-class fishing family facing heartbreak and financial crisis, set in a fictionalized East Bay town called Mount Hope. When the book was made into a CBS television movie in 1999, the setting was changed to Maine.

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The Boy on the Porch

by Dee Holmes (2003)

The Boy on the Porch book cover

This romance novel takes place in fictional Bedford, a "medium-sized" town in the "northern section" of Rhode Island. Teaser text:

On the one-year anniversary of her husband's death, Annie Hunter comes home to find a ragged-looking boy asleep on her porch. When he awakes, she discovers his name is Cullen Gallagher—and that he's convinced that Annie is his mother. Everyone knows his claim is preposterous, especially because she and her late husband, Richard, never had the chance to fulfill their dream of having children. Yet Annie finds herself drawn into the boy's search for his birth parents—and to Linc McCoy, the handsome, rough-edged director of the home for troubled boys where Cullen lives. Slowly, Annie begins to imagine making a place in her life for young Cullen—and for Linc, the one man who could heal her wounded heart...

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The Brass Ring

by Nancy Tafuri (1996)

The Boy on the Porch book cover

For ages 2 and up, this illustrated book features Watch Hill's Flying Horse Carousel.

From www.nancytafuri.com:

Nancy Tafuri's young protagonist is on vacation and exulting in her first taste of independence. Now that she is 'Big' she can swim, explore, and make new friends. But, she decides, what she likes best is the carousel. She has bought her own ticket. The brass ring is in the slot. Thunder, her favorite horse, is waiting. The music is starting. And what a ride it is!

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The Burn Palace

by Stephen Dobyns (2013)

The Burn Palace book cover

Horror fiction set in the fictional Rhode Island town of Brewster. Other, real life locations, like Providence, the Great Swamp, and Perryville, figure in the narrative. Teaser text:

The sleepy community of Brewster, Rhode Island, is just like any other small American town. It's a place where most of the population will likely die blocks from where they were born; where gossip spreads like wildfire, and the big entertainment on weekends is the inevitable fight at the local bar. But recently, something out of the ordinary—perhaps even supernatural—has been stirring in Brewster. While packs of coyotes gather on back roads and the news spreads that a baby has been stolen from Memorial Hospital (and replaced in its bassinet by a snake), a series of inexplicably violent acts begins to confound Detective Woody Potter and the local police—and inspire terror in the hearts and minds of the locals.

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By Force of Arms

by James L. Nelson (1996)

By Force of Arms book cover

Maritime historical novel that takes place in and around Rhode Island and Jamaica in 1775. The author served aboard the modern reconstruction of H.M.S. Rose, and his knowledge of the technical details of square-rigged sailing ships very much informs the narrative.

From the Back Cover:

Blending a seasoned mariner's expertise, a historian's attention to period detail, and a natural storyteller's gift for creating a cast of vivid characters, James L. Nelson brings to dazzling life a never-before-seen side of America's war for independence. Here is the conflict from the seaman's view, full of the sights, sounds, and sensations of the ocean—and of the thunder of cannons as the new world's freedom fighters vie for liberty. Well before Revere rode, seagoing American merchants were striking the first blows for independence. Drawn by the passion of the almighty dollar, none struck more deftly that Isaac Biddlecomb, captain of the Judea, whose smuggling activities made a mockery of His Majesty's Royal Navy. Pursued by the H.M.S. Rose, he sacrificed the ship he loved to the depths, and the fortune he stood to gain, rather than surrender—a bold affront that marked him for pursuit by the enraged forces of King George. Disguised as a merchant seaman, Biddlecomb is reunited with Ezra Rumstick, a comrade and fierce rebel advocate, in the very thick of the brewing revolution. On a brig bound for Jamaica, now serving as a lowly mate, fate tests his mettle when the captured Biddlecomb faces a life of hellish servitude under the mad captain and sadistic crew of the H.M.S. Icarus...

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Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn

by Paul Watkins (1989)

Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn book cover

This novel takes place in Narragansett, on Block Island, and off the coast of Rhode Island. The story concerns a young man who, against his parents' wishes, seeks his fortune at sea aboard a scallop boat. He works hard and learns stuff, and comes to better understand his fisherman father.

Reset in Nova Scotia, the book was made into a made-for-TV movie in 1996, with the truncated title Calm at Sunset.

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Carom Shot

by J.J. Partridge (2005)

Carom Shot book cover

Murder-mystery set in Providence. Carter University is a fictionalized Brown University, but many other real places feature in the story under their own, non-fictional, names. First in the Algy Temple series; followed by Straight Pool.

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The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

by H.P. Lovecraft (1927)

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward book cover

This classic horror tale takes place primarily in Providence, with a side trip to Pawtuxet village. The title character's home, noted to be at 100 Prospect Street, is probably based on the 1801 Colonel Thomas Lloyd Halsey House at 140 Prospect. Only a few years before the story was written, Lovecraft wrote a letter to his Aunt Lillian commenting on the possibility that the house was haunted. It's thought also that a man named William Lippitt Mauran, who at one time lived in Halsey House, may have been a partial source for the character of Charles Dexter Ward. The Maurans and the (fictional) Wards both owned farmhouses in Pawtuxet.

The house address of the character of Dr. Marinus Bicknell Willett, given as 10 Barnes Street, was also Lovecraft's address from 1926 to 1933.

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The Catherine

by Robert S. MacDonald (1982)

The Catherine book cover

Nautical fiction set in North Kingstown. From the dust jacket:<.p>

The Saunders family of Rhode Island are seafarers and shipbuilders. In graceful sailing vessels produced in their shipyard, the Saunders men ply the freight trade from the cold waters of New England to the sunny climates of New Orleans and Texas.

The outbreak of the Civil War interrupts all normal trade between the Northern and Southern states. At the request of the Navy Department, William and Elias Saunders are commissioned to build a special, fleet, armed sailing vessel, named the Catherine. The object: to roam the high seas as a privateer preying on Southern shipping lanes.

Thus begins an adventure that captures the romance of the high seas, together with the ever-present dangers of storms and enemy ships. The scope and sweep of this novel captures the imagination along with the memorable characters that remain with the reader long after the book has been finished.

Among them: William Saunders—Captain of the Catherine. An outstanding seaman, fearless on ship, yet devoted to his wife and children. However, the war causes a new dimension to enter his life and when sequestered in New Orleans, he encounters the love of another woman. Elias Saunders—William's younger brother. His life is devoted to building bigger, better, faster sailing ships—and his wife Rachel. Yet, the lure and profit of the privateering business entice him. Kit Cavanaugh—Renegade, sailor extraordinaire, lover of many women. Respected by his shipmates, he fears no man and enjoys every woman. His exploits alternate between happiness and grief as he cuts a swath through saloons, waterfronts and bordellos from Boston to New Orleans. Roseanne Whitney—Beautiful, tempestuous wife of a Southern aristocrat. Her first lover, Ben Eaton, is a sailor aboard the Catherine. Sympathetic to the northern cause, she provides valuable information to William Saunders and thus her life becomes entwined with those of the men aboard the Catherine. Eliza Saunders—She waits and prays for her man William to return safely to Rhode Island and when he does, he is different.

Within this panoramic book, the reader will be spirited away to the coves and rivers of Rhode Island, the sultry, fascinating immorality of New Orleans under the northern occupation, the provincialism of Washington, and the familiar ports of call; Plymouth, Baltimore, and New York, amidst the background of the carnage and heartbreak of the Civil War.

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Celia Amberley

by Victoria Lincoln (1949)

Celia Amberley book cover

Coming-of-age fiction set on Aquidneck Island, pre-World War II.

From Kirkus Reviews, October 13, 1949:

A quite different type of novel from February Hill [the author's more well-known novel], and in its way as perceptive, though perhaps not as unusual. This time the focus is on the story of a girl growing up, a girl well-born, but in early childhood profoundly affected by the disintegration of her parents' marriage, the emotional repercussions which they thought they were sparing her. A contemporary novel, in that the whole of the action—if action it can be called—takes place in the quarter century preceding World War II. And yet the feeling of the background takes on the color of a period novel, so sharply does the author etch the psychological setting, the moods, points of view, the growing pains of the shift from a too-sheltered, almost a deprived childhood of the well-to-do, with inherited intolerances and prejudices, to an artificial adaptation to the freedoms of a world never quite Celia's own. Her loneliness, her frustrations, her clutchings at the trappings of popularity are superbly conceived—convincingly presented. A searching psychological novel directed toward the adolescence of a girl much closer to the norm than the average heroine of modern novels. The setting is largely Rhode Island, with Philadelphia and Cambridge as periphery.

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by Robert B. Parker (1982)

Ceremony book cover

A "specialty whorehouse" in Providence is a key location in this detective novel featuring Spenser, Parker's iconic P.I., according to the summary on Goodreads:

Pretty teenager April Kyle is in grown-up-trouble, involved with people who'd beat her up for a dollar and kill her for five. Now she's disappeared, last seen in the Combat Zone, that side of Boston where nothing's proper, especially the sex for sale. With Hawk, his sidekick, Spenser takes on the whole X-rated industry. From a specialty whorehouse in Providence to stylish Back Bay bordellos, he pits muscle and wit against bullets and brawn until he finds what he's looking for: April Kyle, little girl lost.

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The Challenge and the Glory

by Antoinette Stockenberg (1987)

The Challenge and the Glory book cover

A sprawling novel "...tracing the lives and fortunes of three separate families in Newport..." from the 1890s to the 1980s. So sprawling, in fact, that Stockenberg re-released the story as four separate novels (the By the Sea series) in 2013. Expect lots of class conflict against the backdrop of the America's Cup Races. Stockenberg categorizes the first three quarters of the book as "historical fiction/romance," and the balance as "mystery."

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