For the New Year I have been reading again many of my old favorite works of fiction. Re-reading good books is a pleasure. Included in my list are things like Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief (the great Canadian novel?) and John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (every time I read the story I am sure this time they will make it across the Wall). As much as I enjoy these titles, I realized that many of my favorites are from Maine literature.
I have long been interested in what makes someone a Maine writer, a question I wrote about years ago in an essay called “Two Pigs From Maine: Reflections on Authenticity in Regional Literature.” For me, authentic Maine literature captures elements of the Maine character and experience that are timeless. What Maine writers have found about this place and people often holds true decades after being used in Maine stories.
If you want to understand the phenomenon of high school basketball in the small towns of Maine, there is no better way than reading Ruth Moore’s A Walk Down Main Street. Even though it describes the experiences in one coastal town many years ago, the story rings true today.
Much of the Maine experience reflects the tensions between locals and “those from away.” The details of those tensions may change over time, but their essence does not. So I find resonance in Mary Ellen Chase’s Windswept or Ruth Moore again with Spoonhandle, which is perhaps my favorite Maine novel. Relations with summer people can tear a town apart even when they provide economic life blood.
Life in rural towns does not need people from away to make it challenging. Those challenges, particularly in towns reliant on the bounty of nature for their survival, are a common theme in Maine literature. Few describe this better than Cathie Pelletier in The Weight of Winter or Mary Ellen Chase in The Edge of Darkness. While Pelletier writes about northern Aroostook County and Chase about coastal Hancock County, each describes the despair and the hope of Maine town life. The Weight of Winter also shows us part of the reality of different lives of the two Maines. Her fictional Mattagash is a long way from Portlandia.
Speaking of Portlandia, I recently heard on the radio an interview with a proponent of the “new” Maine food culture. She exclaimed pretentiously that the idea of a food culture was something alien to Maine a few decades ago. I immediately thought of R.P.T. Coffin’s Mainstays of Maine. Coffin, Maine poet and essayist, often published in Gourmet magazine and elsewhere about Maine food culture of the early 20th Century. Only the naïve would think that a food culture was brought to Maine (by those from away?) in the 21st Century.
Maine food was often about harvest from nature. There is not a better telling about this than Lawrence Sargent Hall’s gripping short story, “The Ledge.” Hall’s short story won the O’Henry prize and was widely anthologized. Larry Hall was an expert in teaching expository writing, and I had the privilege of learning from him in the fall of 1970. Yet he is best known for this masterpiece of Maine writing.
And there is so much more. You could learn about the settling of Maine by Europeans from Ben Ames Williams or about Revolutionary Maine from Kenneth Roberts. C.A. Stephens described 19th Century Maine farm life and Henry Beston told about early 20th Century farm life. So did RPT Coffin, best in poems. Then there is Elisabeth Ogilvie or Louise Dickinson Rich (The Peninsula is her best). Rich is a word that best describes the legacy of Maine writing left to us over the centuries. Reading these is a delightful way to understand who we have been and who we may become.
In his New York Times book review of Pelletier’s The Weight of Winter novelist Tim Sandlin said, “…after reading Stephen King, Carolyn Chute and now Cathie Pelletier, I’ve come to a conclusion: I would not live in Maine for all the Guggenheim grants in creation.” Of course, we know that for all that is revealed by this body of Maine literature, we would not live anywhere else.