Buncombe County native Terry Roberts may have found literary success later in life, but he hasn’t wasted a single minute since publishing his 2012 debut novel, A Short Time to Stay Here. At the time, he was 55; a decade later, the now award-winning author recently celebrated the July 27 release of his fourth novel, My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black.
The prolific writer attributes some of his success to his return to Weaverville in 2013 after spending nearly 30 years in the eastern part of the state. Since that time, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the region’s history have provided endless topics to explore. “It’s almost like a vein opened up and there’s been a lot of storytelling,” Roberts says.
And while his latest novel takes place on the New York harbor in 1920, his main character’s deep longing to return home to Western North Carolina is apparent — even amid a string of mysterious murders being committed on Ellis Island, the former immigration station that operated 1892-1954.
Beyond flappers and jazz
Though not a sequel, My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black reintroduces Stephen Robbins, the protagonist in Roberts’ debut novel set in the Madison County town of Hot Springs during World War I. Two years after the armistice, Stephen has since relocated to New York City, where he is tasked by the U.S. government to find an Irish immigrant who recently went missing on Ellis Island. But shortly after stepping off the ferry, Stephen realizes his assignment may be part of a much larger conspiracy.
In many ways, Roberts’ latest work is a classic whodunit. Yet at the same time, the tale spotlights a dangerous, albeit often overlooked, component of early 20th-century American history. While the 1920s are most readily associated with speak-easies, flappers and jazz, the decade also saw the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan and a growing obsession with racial, moral, physical and intellectual purity through the eugenics movement.
On Ellis Island, Stephen discovers a number of administrators and hospital workers who seem bent on denying entry to those deemed undesirable. Soon thereafter, bodies begin washing ashore with inexplicable injuries.
From the start, says Roberts, “I knew who was carrying out the murders and that they were motivated by racial purity.” But it took touring Ellis Island with his wife to truly understand how the gruesome act was performed. At the risk of a spoiler, this reporter will simply note Roberts’ enthusiasm upon the epiphany.
“I turned to my wife and said, ‘That’s it,’” the author remembers exclaiming midway through the tour. “And she of course said, ‘What is it?’ And I said, ‘That’s how they’re doing it.’”
World’s most vicious species
As Stephen’s suspicions of foul play intensify, he meets Lucy Paul, an undercover nurse also assigned to investigate the island’s activities. Like the facility itself, both Stephen and Lucy bring their own secrets to the island, some of which put their lives at risk.
One of the joys in reading Roberts’ latest novel is the constant game of cat-and-mouse between the two protagonists and the unknown culprits. Most of the suspects, while explicit in their white supremacist views, are subtle and manipulative in their efforts to derail the investigation.
Through these investigative scenes, the author also explores some of the novel’s larger themes. For example, in an early exchange between Stephen and one of the book’s many suspects — the deeply religious Ethel Adams — the latter expresses her disappointment and disbelief in the violent theories the former is promulgating.
“Why does that seem so outrageous?” Stephen replies. “So far as I can tell, your little oasis is fully staffed by human beings — and after all, we are the world’s most vicious species.”
Dreams of home
Along with leading the investigation, Stephen is the book’s narrator. Throughout the tale, readers are privy to his inner thoughts and turmoils, which include a dissolving marriage and a deep desire to return to WNC. His homesickness, explains Roberts, makes Stephen an ideal storyteller. Like most on Ellis Island, he is an outsider, far away from all that is familiar.
Stephen’s unrelenting wish to return home also quietly reminds readers of the unspoken desires that many of the recent immigrants carried with them upon their arrival to America.
Such moments, paired with Roberts’ additional interrogations into the arbitrary requirements for obtaining citizenship, adds a depth to My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black that lingers with readers long after the murder mystery is solved. At its core, the book is asking: What does it mean to be an American? Who gets to decide? And why?
“For a moment, I had the weird sense that I was some sort of minor god, floating in the sky above the sorting ground that is human experience,” Roberts writes in an early passage of the book, wherein Stephen stands upon a balcony above the registry room, overlooking the crowd of hopeful arrivals. “And below me, struggling and clawing and striving, was the mass of humankind, being funneled into the tracks that would determine not just who they might become — as if potential mattered — but who they were all along. Who they were fated to be from the beginning of the journey? From birth?”