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.”
Thanks, Paul. I’ve met Carolyn Chute, and her husband, and heard her read — and, of course, read her books. And admired her writing in some — and not so much in others. She is a true “Maine character” in many ways. (And her publicist gloried in that when The Beans of Egypt Maine was first published.) But she writes truth about part of Maine. You grew up here. I didn’t, although I spent enough time here to know some of these people; and when I visit schools, especially schools away from the coast, I meet sometimes meet their children. Thanks you for reminding us that Maine is not just lighthouses and lobsters.
Those pictures are haunting–and made me want to read your books. Which should I start with, would you say?
For me Maine is good times, warm weather, cold water, family all together. Vacationland. It produces a schism from those who weathered (literally) the long year without enough resources to manage comfortably. I dream of moving to ME one day, but I know I will always be an outsider, and perhaps this reason is part of why.
Hi Jenny: Thank you. Begin with The Poacher’s Son. The books can be read out of sequence, but I think the second one reads better if you’ve already read the first.
And don’t be so sure you will always be regarded as an outsider. That’s some people’s experience, depending on their circumstances and towns. But others here quickly become integral pieces in our communities. The original back-to-the-landers were derided for many years, but a lot of them have become true (and beloved) leaders.
Thanks for the Melonie Bennett tag.
Melonie is one of our favorite photographers to work with at Down East.
How interesting all of this was! I’ll read these books too. Jenny, you asked the question I needed the answer to — which of Paul’s books to read first.
I live in Somerset County and work as a librarian in one of the small towns. I watch people struggle daily to get by. Some of the young, but poorly educated come in and spend 2-3 hours going from online help wanted ads to the state website and then to Craigslist, hoping to get lucky. For them getting lucky doesn’t mean finding a full time job, it more often means they found some guy on Craigslist who wants them to drive 50 miles for 4 hours of backbreaking work at $10.00 an hour in cash. It’s a victory if they end up with enough left after paying for gas to buy a 6-pack and some food for whomever they live with.
I spent an hour this morning at the Goodwill Hinckley School talking to a class of at-risk teens about my books. These were boys from Jay and Madison and Knox who don’t (usually) read novels but who do hunt deer and ride ATVs. It was so rewarding to me to hear their intelligemt questions and know that my novels spoke to the realities of their lives.
Paul, that’s what’s so frustrating, listening to 12-17 year olds who are smart enough to know that the world isn’t likely to be or remain friendly as they reach adulthood. When I was a teen growing up down near the coast, nobody thought about hunting for work, it was there in the form of raking blueberries, taking care of chickens, cows, etc. That same level of opportunity isn’t around any more and one of the biggest challenges we as a society face is figuring out how to help these smart, but disadvantaged kids make the connection between getting some decent level of education and not waking up every morning in a drafty double-wide with people they don’t particularly like. An oversimplification, I know, but still one of the big roadblocks facing this lovely state.
I read the beans and was hypnotized by the book. Just as haunting are the photographs. There is always a side that we don’t see in beautiful vacation spots, it seems.
I don’t think ME is alone. Most touristy states have their “back alleys”.