Stocking a Real Maine Bookshelf

Come Spring by Ben Ames Williams

Kate: What books might be found on a real Maine bookshelf? When I started pondering on this topic, I found myself drifting back to my childhood and remembering what books were on the shelves of the old Union farmhouse. Robert McCloskey, of course. Just the other day, with the aid of a jam jar martini, I was reading one of his less well-known books, Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man, aloud to a group of adults who’d never read it. We had my grandmother’s well-worn copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Pearl of Orrs Island. We had Lois Lowry and John Gould and Mary Ellen Chase. As my e-mail query to Maine librarians reminds me, we had Ruth Moore (thanks, Anne Davis in Gardiner) and a book about the settlement of my part of Maine, Come Spring by Ben Ames Williams and Donn Fendler’s Lost on a Mountain in Maine (reminders from Deborah Bowman at the Chebeague Island Library)

Among my long-time favorites I have to include Sandy Phippen’s books, especially People Trying To Be Good and Kitchen Boy. The latter perfectly captures that locals vs. people from away feeling I always had as I made beds and clean rooms and polished brass and harvested crops so that the summer people could have a more pleasant stay in my state.

Kenneth Roberts' Rabble in Arms

Lea:  When we’re talking long-time favorites, I have to include Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods. And Kenneth Roberts’ historical novels.  My very favorite of those is Rabble in Arms, set in 1776-1777 and telling how New Englanders ralleyed and saved the day to defeat General Burgoyne at Saratoga. Great characters, and great history.  More recently, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich did an amazing job of putting together the pieces of life in a small town (Hallowell) based on a diary. Every time I read A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812,  I learn more fascinating facts, and I have more respect for historians — and for Mainers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

But, perhaps not surprisingly, my all-time favorite Maine book is E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. And, of course, I cry every time I read those famous last two lines. “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

Barb: Oh, Lea.  We had a CD of White reading Charlotte’s Web in his gravelly voice.  We used to play it on long car trips when the children were small.  I’m getting a little misty thinking about it now.

Kaitlyn: Two of my favorite old-time Maine writers are Elisabeth Ogilvie and Gladys Hasty Carroll. Both of them, writing over several decades, did a wonderful job of presenting life in Maine as it was already ceasing to be. Ogilvie, in particular, took a Maine island family through some pretty heart-wrenching but realistic trials and tribulations, including the loss of a son at sea. Interestingly enough, she also wrote children’s books, which tended to be much more upbeat. And late in her career, she wrote two non-Maine romantic suspense novels that I enjoyed tremendously, both on first reading and in a recent reread. The Silent Ones is set in Scotland and The Devil in Tartan takes place in Nova Scotia. My favorite book by Carroll is also a bit of a departure from her usual work. She wrote a fictionalized account of her years as a student at Bates College in the 1920s called To Remember Forever. I first read it when I was a student there myself. In the 1960s, there was a lot that was still the same. Today? Not so much.

Jim Hayman:  Colin Woodward’s The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators and the Struggle For a Forgotten Frontier.  Woodward writes beautifully about the history of the state, particularly the coast, beginning and ending with the fishermen of Monhegan Island. Throughout the book, he focuses on lobstering, the industry that has for many years been one of the backbones of Maine’s economy and perhaps the most ubiquitous of symbols for the state. Anyone genuinely interested in Maine and Mainers will greatly enjoy this book.

Kate Jim. this makes me think that sometime we should do a blog on books with lobster in the title. Haven’t read this one, and now I’m looking forward to it.

Barb: Going for the obvious.  Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout.  The connected stories provide the laser focus and economy of a short stories combined with the all-engrossing world of a novel.  A favorite.  I still remember how The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute bowled me over with its power. Also, “Horseman” by Richard Russo is one of my favorite short stories of all time, even though it doesn’t take place in Maine, it is collected in Best American Short Stories 2007, edited by Stephen King, so I’m claiming the double Maine author credit to get around the setting issue.

Paul I would definitely second Jim’s choice of The Lobster Coast which is easily the best Maine history written in the past decade. Colin is a Contributing Editor for my magazine—he writes our “Talk of Maine” column—so I am admittedly biased. One of the many perks of working for Down East is that we are sent every new book with a Maine connection (we also maintain a considerable archive of Maine classics.) I am pretty sure that my office bookshelves contain every book mentioned above, with the exception of Ogilvie’s Scottish and Canadian novels. Maybe we should start a lending library!

Burt Dow Deep-Water Man by Robert McCloskey

Vicki: Good idea, Paul!  I have to say Kate’s recommendation of Burt Dow, Deep Water Man brought back memories of reading it night after night (after night) to our boys, one of whom became an actual “deep water man” captaining yachts. (Meanwhile our daughter preferred McCloskey’s lovely and symmetrical tale Blueberries for Sal.) I am wondering if any of you ever saw the sweet diary of a couple’s stay in a cabin in the North Woods in the 1930’s called A Week at the Lake? It is such a little gem, and sadly out of print, but a poignant description of Maine nature seen through the eyes of Grace Butterfield Dow, a newlywed wife. Her daughter Nan Mulford orchestrated its publication in 2001, and it’s beautifully illustrated with woodcuts by Siri Beckman. I have it at our camp and just love reading it.

Gerry, bringing up the rear: My compadres have done a wonderful job here, reminding me of books I’ve loved, and a few suggestions to add to my list for the future. Some memories here, too. When my kids were little, and we spent part of each summer on Eggemoggin Reach, we reenacted the McCloskey pilgrimage many times, taking the boat up the reach to Bucks Harbor and hiking up the hill to Condon’s Garage (still there last I checked) and having an ice cream at the store. Makes me smile to think of it. And Ruth Moore! I read this post and went and dug out my copy of Spoonhandle. A lovely book and one that went beyond its setting to tell a compelling story of the tensions of life, not only on the coast, but of growing up in general. Earlier this month we visited friends who live on the island where Moore spent much of her childhood. Her ancestral home overlooks the harbor; in our friends’ home, there is a hold map of the island with the houses and owners designated. MOORE is written in careful printing, long before the daughter emerged as a famous novelist. SPOONHANDLE, by the way, sold a million copies and was made into a very popular movie. Is fame fleeting or what? So let me add to this the prolific Maine author Joseph C. Lincoln, who, in the 1930s mostly, wrote novels set in the mid-coast. I love them, even though they seem a bit dated now. HEAD TIDE (1932) sits in an honored place on my study bookshelf.

Kate: Gerry, read Head Time so many years ago. Clearly, this is creating a read and a reread list for what my mother used to call “the long, cold winter.”

P.S. Reader appreciation give-aways begin this week. A lucky commenter will be chosen next Saturday, from this week’s comments, to receive a hardcover copy of Kate Flora’s Playing God.

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3 Responses to Stocking a Real Maine Bookshelf

  1. Pj Schott says:

    Now that’s A LIST!!

  2. MCWriTers says:

    This month, our book discussion group at the Hartland Public Library is reading Helen Nearing’s “Loving and Leaving the Good Life.” I’m surprised nobody went funny and mentioned Tim Sample’s “Saturday Night at Moody’s Diner.”

  3. Dee says:

    Wow..I hadn’t thought about Elisabeth Ogilvie in years. Maybe I will have to re-read her and also delve into some of the others you have all mentioned. Thanks, Dee

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