Introducing a few literary gems, Maine-style

John here, wearing my librarian hat. I can’t speak for other states, but the wealth of books about Maine is amazing. Librarians in Maine have some great resources that allow us to share things that might otherwise be tossed or find less valuable homes. Over 100 libraries are participants in the statewide catalog, MaineCat. This makes getting a non-owned item for patrons a matter of a quick search and a couple clicks. Those of us on the statewide van service have all our interlibrary loans, both incoming and outgoing arrive at a set day and time. Bigger libraries get daily delivery, while smaller ones like Hartland get once a week delivery, all for a flat weekly fee that’s an incredible cost saver. For example, we pay about $750 annually in Hartland and we process in excess of 3,000 loans per year. If we had to pay to mail that many at an average cost of around $2.75 per package, our cost would be over $8,000, a prohibitive amount.

Most of us are on MeLibs, the listserv for Maine librarians. Interestingly enough, there are about 1300 members and many of them live in other states or countries. These other folks have an affinity for Maine and Maine libraries. We like having them on the list because they often have answers to technical questions we can’t answer. The list, combined with the van service, creates many of those opportunities to conserve/preserve materials. Hardly a day goes by without someone offering a book, a box of video cases, or an unwanted printer cartridge. While preference is usually given to van participants, not being one isn’t a deal breaker.

I particularly like those instances where bigger libraries offer books by Maine writers or about Maine. Interest in those books has grown steadily since I came to Hartland in 2006, so I look with eagerness at every list offered on Melibs. As a result, our collection has doubled in size. I mention this because as writers or readers, I suspect many of you enjoy discovering new books or resources for reference. I picked out a few to profile this time around. We’re all familiar with the Delorme Atlas, but how many of you have ever taken the time to read all the non-map information it contains? There’s another book that is as information rich, but less well known. It’s a dandy reference tool, but is equally interesting as a browsing book. The Dictionary of Maine Place-Names was written by Professor Phillip R. Rutherford and published by Bond Wheelwright Co. in 1970. There’s a preface that talks about The naming of names, followed by a general explanation that gives readers a feel for the information flow it contains. These are followed by a county by county list of how towns, mountains, bodies of water, etc. got their names. Many were named after their original owners, but there are neat anecdotes like how Butter Hill in Androscoggin County got its name. This is a dandy book to have handy when looking to create a piece of real estate in a book or short story.

There are a wealth of books written about families and individuals growing up in Maine. Shoutin’ Into the Fog: Growing up on Maine’s Ragged Edge by Thomas Hanna, published by Islandport Press in 2006, is an example. The author grew up on the coast near Georgetown, part of a large family with a proud seafaring heritage. The Great Depression took its toll, leaving them living in a tiny bungalow pieced together with second hand wood and cardboard. This is a very interesting look at Maine in hardscrabble times

Many of the books in our Maine collection have appeal because of their offbeat nature. Exploring the Spirit of Maine: a seeker’s guide by Karen Wentworth Batignani, published by Down East Books in 2005, is an example. It’s divided into several sections beginning with Inspired alternatives: Religions, then Practicing Mindfulness: east meets west, Coming together: communities, Pursuing Higher Wisdom: degrees, certificates, programs, Reflection and Renewal: retreats and camps,Transforming Vision to Action: organizations and councils, Sacred Architecture: churches, and ending with Inspirational Teachers: recommended reading. Most of the places and organizations covered are described and have contact information as well as a photo. What I found most surprising about the book is the variety of places and entities the author covers. It left me with a much greater appreciation for Maine’s spiritual diversity.

One sub-genre of Maine nonfiction I find fascinating is the recovery and transcription of diaries and journals that might easily be lost were it not for a dedicated soul who spent countless hours transcribing these documents so others could enjoy them. One example is Tales of a Homemade Naturalist:The Maine diaries of Herbert M.W, Haven by Phillip Morrill. Published by Baril Books, Poland, Maine. My copy is a reprint of the 1966 edition. The author notes in a letter to Mr. Haven at the beginning of the book, that it is “a little of the two hundred pounds of notebooks in which you so meticulously entered notes on every phase of everything over your lifespan with hopes that it would not be lost.” Mr. Morrill excerpts entries beginning in 1919 and ending 30 years later, creating a literary road map of Haven’s travels through Maine’s natural world. Some entries are but a paragraph, while others cover multiple pages. Many are succinct observations of trips taken with a wide variety of friends and people from nature-related professions. Each chronicles where they went, what they saw and who they met. While this isn’t necessarily an information-rich book, it’s a nice glimpse into a time in Maine most of us never had a chance to experience.

A more current book by an observer of natural Maine can be found in Hidden World Revealed: Musings of a Maine naturalist by Tom Seymour, published by Just Write Books in 2008. Tom has been writing about the natural side of Maine for more than 20 years, much of his work appearing in The Maine Sportsman. He divides this book into seasons, beginning with winter, with each season consisting of short essays and observations about something he saw or experienced and how it made him feel. Readers familiar with my late mother’s book From The Orange Mailbox will find this has much the same reflective flavor.

One day not long after I started at the Hartland Public Library, a lady came in and asked for suggestions regarding new mystery authors she might like. We chatted after I made some suggestions and she told me about the unique school she and her husband ran several times a year. It was called Goat School and covered everything they had learned by trial and error as they built up their herd of goats and began selling cheese and meat. “You should write a book,” I said. “I have,” she replied. She brought me a copy a few days later and I added it to the collection. Goat School became so popular that people reserved spots a year in advance. In 2011, Down East Books published a revised edition called Goat School: a master class in caprine care and cooking by Janice Spaulding. Having chatted for several years about Goat School, I can attest to the thoroughness with which this book addresses everything you would want to know about raising goats. It’s an excellent example of Maine ingenuity turned into a book that meets the needs of a growing niche market.

Several months ago, the Franco-American collection at the University of Southern Maine got weeded, mostly of duplicate copies. We had zilch in our Maine collection, so I claimed a half dozen or so titles. Among them was What Became of Them and Other Stories From FrancoAmerica by Denis Ledoux, published by Soleil Press in 1988. The nine stories introduce readers to men and women at turning points in their lives. Franco-American heritage and culture is woven into each of them, giving readers a window on a culture that has had a huge influence on Maine, but is ignored by many.

One of the nicest presents Maine libraries got in 2010 was a labor of love called Christmas in Allagash: the early years. Published in 2009 by the Allagash Historical Society, this gift edition was made possible in part by funds from the Irving Woodlands Company. Edited by Maine author Cathie Pelletier, with able help from Allen Jackson, Marilyn McBreairty, Helen Kelly McBreairty and Kathy Kelly Jackson (they all took time to sign every copy), this is as gorgeous a trip down memory lane as you’ll find. It’s a series pf personal memories about Christmas as remembered by current and former Allagash residents and the photos are a treasure trove unto themselves. Stop by your local library and see what I mean about this gem of a book.

Mainer Will Anderson has spent a goodly portion of his life creating nostalgia books about various facets of gone-by Maine. One example is his Those Were the Days!: drive-ins, dance halls, fried clams, summer & Maine. Published by Anderson & Son in 2002, this is a lavishly illustrated book that provides a pretty decent history of dance halls, drive-ins and clam shacks around the state. There are plenty of photos to help readers imagine what it was like back then. Will provides lots of tasty trivia tidbits like the observation that the last show at my old favorite, the Rockland Drive-in was was on August 31st 1986, featuring The Karate Kid II and St. Elmo’s Fire.

Maine has plenty of poets and plenty of poetry books. One that landed in our collection because of its catchy cover and title is Caribouddhism by Gary Lawless. Published by Blackberry Books in 1998, the title, according to Gary resulted from a 1995 trip he took with Beth Leonard and Nanao Sakaki to Newfoundland to see icebergs, caribou and moose. “As we traveled we talked of how every place has its own messages, visions, teachers, practices. I suggested that we become caribouddhists, wandering with the great herds, listening to their stories, tasting the ice, and joining their quest for enlichenment.” This book was the result. In addition to the poems, there is a conversation at the back of the book between Gary Lawless and Jamie Sayen about the concept of giving voice to place.

Finally I offer up Onawa Revisited by William R. Sawtell, self-published in 1989. Onawa no longer exists as a town, at least it’s not listed in The Maine Register. It does, however, live in the memories of many folks in Piscataquis County, as well as those living in other communities scattered across the U.S who share a connection through memories of a time when it was a lively town on the rail line southeast of Greenville. The author has recreated the town as it exists in his mind as well as those of numerous other Mainers who lived there or visited at one time or another. Individual and collective vignettes are fleshed out by numerous photos, helping readers to recreate this lost Maine community in their imaginations.

These are just a tiny sampling of the many little known, but extremely interesting books by Mainers about the state they live in and love. I encourage you to treat yourself to a magical mystery tour the next time you visit a Maine library.

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3 Responses to Introducing a few literary gems, Maine-style

  1. Gram says:

    I am so happy to hear about the rescue of books. I read yesterday about a school in VA that threw away 250,000 books! Someone would have taken most of them I am sure.
    I really enjoyed From the Orange Mailbox and it reminded me just how much work it is to keep a garden.
    Our Library town wide read this year is by a ME writer – Colin Woodward’s American Nations.

  2. John Clark says:

    Colin’s dad was one of my library patrons when I was the library director in Boothbay Harbor.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    As a writer of historical fiction set in Maine, I especially value those transcribed and printed diaries and “memory books” about the Maine of earlier years. I’ve collected many of them for my personal library, and really appreciate that so many small town historical societies have printed up histories of their towns. But there are so many more materials of this sort (letters, diaries) that have not been published .. they’re still sitting in public library archives, or historical societies’ libraries, in towns throughout the state. I’ve read some set in Wiscasset, where most of my books are set, and they are invaluable materials. I hope, now that self-publishing is such a viable option, that more towns will recognize the treasures they have, often not even kept archivally, and transcribe and publish these materials before they are lost forever. Wonderful post, John!

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