During the cold, dark days of February, it’s fun for us to turn back to some of our older posts, and rerun them for you. When Paul wrote about the dark side, he wrote it on a sunny Maine day in May. But when the days are gray, and the woods are gray, and our minds are filled with dark deeds, bad actors, and grim news in the real world, thinking about Carolyn Chute, and Maine we see as we drive the back roads, seems very appropriate. Carry in some wood, pour yourself a stiff one, and revisit Paul’s post.
Paul Doiron here—
Someday our merry band of Maine Crime Writers should start a thread about our various literary influences. Mine would include Carolyn Chute, author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts (her best book, in my opinion), and three other novels. No living Maine author has provoked more accolades and rage—or experienced wilder swings of fortune—than Carolyn.
Unless you lived in Maine at the time, it’s hard to appreciate the furor Carolyn Chute created when The Beans first appeared in 1986. Her fictional expose of Maine’s backwoods culture was taken as a frontal attack on the state’s well-polished image by many in the tourist industry. Other readers praised the book’s harrowing depiction of rural poverty: a way of life largely ignored by previous novelists. The book has been regularly challenged in classrooms and continues to be stolen from libraries by disapproving prudes who believe it celebrates incest. (It doesn’t.)
But this isn’t a post about Carolyn Chute. It’s about a side of Maine that she brought to light for an international audience. These days, the fact that Maine includes outposts of hopelessness and drug addiction isn’t particularly controversial. It’s widely acknowledged, if not enthusiastically advertised for obvious reasons. Down East has ruffled some feathers when we’ve shown this side of the state in the magazine.
In my novels I’ve done my best to create characters from this “other Maine”—characters based on people I’ve met (or am, in fact, related to). But even three decades after The Beans of Egypt, Maine, I find readers who are unprepared or unwilling to see the dark side of Vacationland.
To me, it feels like old news. But a new exhibit of photographs by Steven Rubin at the drkrm gallery in Los Angeles has won worldwide attention. Rubin traveled throughout rural Somerset County for decades, taking pictures of people “exiled from the American Dream.” We authors don’t always like the old chestnut that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” But only a fool would deny the power of an image to pierce the heart. So when doubting readers ask me about The Poacher’s Son or Trespasser or Bad Little Falls, I have no problem answering, “If you want to understand my books, look at Steve Rubin’s photographs.”