It was a bit startling recently to realize that my first summer in Maine was in 1951— in Readfield near Augusta— and that I’ve been here on Deer Isle for part or all of each summer since 1958. This long association started, as much else did, with my parents. They came to Maine to as camp counselors near Camden in the early 1940s. Dad was teaching at a private boarding school and they literally had no place to live when the school year ended. Their quarters was two small Dickensian rooms on the top floor just below the attics, so when a fellow teacher suggested they get jobs
in Maine camps as he did each summer, they leapt at the chance to solve their housing problem and breathe some fresh air.“Had they but known”—it was the start of a lifelong love affair with the state. Dad went off to a boys camp, Frank Poland’s Medomak in Washington and Mom to nearby Katharine Ridgeway , for girls, in Coopers Mills. “Katharine Ridgeway” was the stage name of Katharine Hunt, a popular figure on the Chautauqua circuit who gave dramatic and humorous readings. She started the camp with her husband in her retirement and I was named for her, although my parents changed the spelling slightly.Dad was not a beach person, an inquisitive and active man, so the Jersey shore close to our home was out. Even Cape Cod where many of my mother’s family went only satisfied him for two summer vacations.Maine kept calling—particularly the coast. Once immersed, quite literally as Dad swam here every day, as do I—no one ever mentioned when I was a kid that the water was cold—Dad found plenty to explore on Deer Isle with its rich history and natural beauty. Occasionally this meant crossing the bridge or taking to the water. We went out to Matinicus Rock to see the puffins, to the woods to meet Louise Dickinson Rich, and to the Camden Hills while Dad recited Millay’s “Renascence”—“All I could see from where I stood/Was three long mountains and a wood”—as we climbed. Ferns, shells, birds, marine life—we learned all their names and later taught them to our children. Just as we introduced them to the walk out to Barred Island, Neva Beck and penny candy at The Periwinkle, her uncle’s former cobbler’s shop, photographed by my father. As were the quarries, working when we first started coming; the cannery; and us, especially my yearly July 9thbirthday photo. Neva’s Periwinkle was also where we would occasionally run into Robert McCloskey. Maine has always meant writers: E.B. White, Elizabeth Coatsworth, Rachel Carson, Sarah Orne Jewett as I was growing up.
And painters. My mother was a painter and I still see her in my mind’s eye sitting
on the shore doing watercolor s of the always changing view, some of which she translated into oils during the winter months. My parents were friends with John Heliker and Robert LaHotan, who were on Cranberry in the summer. Both Fairfield Porter and photographer brother Eliot were also nearby on Great Spruce Head. John Marin had lived on Greenhead in Stonington and Dad photographed his landlady, Nellie Webster and wrote down her reminiscences.
Eventually they bought a piece of land and built a small cottage overlooking a cove. Mom paced off exactly the frontage she wanted, from the huge black oak to a large birch that was supposed to come down that first winter, but has lasted, along with those shallow rooted tamaracks, for over 45 years of storms. My sister is there now and we are next door, watching the same ebb and flow of the tides my parents did.
When I started writing mysteries, I knew that I wanted to set one on the island. The Body in the Kelp is the second in the series and has been followed by others on my “fictitious” Sanpere Island in Penobscot Bay—The Body in the Basement, The Body in the Lighthouse, The Body in the Sleigh, and for kids: Christie & Company Down East. If indeed, as I believe, the writing of a mystery novel is essentially an act of revelation—the proverbial peeling back the layers of an onion— then Maine provides the perfect setting; its people the perfect characters. You need patience to get to know both and begin to discover what lies within. Preferably a lifetime.
My favorite Maine poem is Robert Lowell’s “Soft Wood” from the collection, For the Union Dead. He writes: “Here too in Maine things bend to the wind forever.” Alice and William Page are buried here on the island in the Mt. Adams cemetery, the plot bordered by birches.
I’ll join them there at some point. But today the wind that has sculpted those birches into gentle arches means a good day for a sail and, at the end, time this evening to watch the moon rise over the pointed firs.