New Maine, Old Maine, What’s Maine?

The annual NYT summer notice of Maine came out last week, and while I give them credit for trying to get vacationers north of Brunswick and west of 95, it’s still the kind of fluff that glosses over some of the deep historical and economic problems the state of Maine deals with.

Combining that with some recent doings in the city of Portland set me wandering down a mental path I’ve spent a lot of time on lately, what constitutes the “real Maine.” I doubt there is such a thing, actually—we’re too broad and diverse to fit in one bucket. And there doesn’t seem to be space for talking abut that kind of thing publicly at the moment—I have hopes for the future—and pretty much regardless of whatever flag you’re flying, you’re going to piss someone off.

I do think, especially in the urban parts of the state, we are a little more caught up in the flavor of the month in thought and action, and like a cat watching the bird feeder, react more to what’s right in front of us than what might be a more ongoing concerns, long-term. So I’d rather promote a couple of books I think go deeply into aspects of Maine that concern us, things we don’t want to forget about in the flush of our prosperity and our influx of talent.

I’ve been talking up Kerri Arsenault’s book Mill Town almost since it came out. It is simultaneously a work of environmental journalism, memoir, and a chronicle of the painful tradeoffs made by so many working class Maine towns, between a solid local economy and its effects on the people who live there. The book describes Arsenault’s hometown, Mexico, Maine, which for the better part of a century depended on a paper mill as the source of jobs for the town, including for members of her family.

The book is meticulously researched and heartbreaking, thoughtful and perceptive about the economic choices we can be forced into, as well as the way we think about home. As I’ve said before, I don’t think you can understand the State of Maine if you haven’t read this book.

I will say the same thing about Downeast, by Gigi Georges, a nonfiction treatment of the lives of five young women from Washington County, much farther downeast than the New York Times knows of.

Georges follows the lives and stories of the five teenagers through their involvement in school, sports, work, their families, and all in the context of the challenges of living in that remote and rural northeast corner of the state. The book is a loving but cool-eyed view of the risks and opportunities for young women in rural locations, but ultimately a positive story of how they meet the challenges on their own terms. They redefine their roles and possibilities in the wider world while they continue to respect family and community. And like Mill Town, Downeast is also a meditation on home.

What I struggle with, down here in the sweet wealthy part of the state, is our persistent local air that the southern part of the state defines Maine for too many people. I love the diversity of faces and voices here, but I fear we concentrate too much on the superficial and the positive: the vibrant food scene, the ocean, the beaches, the summer time crowds. I believe we don’t think enough about the totality of people and concerns that this enormous stretch of a state encompasses.

Both of these books are a bracing antidote to a narrow view of Maine, and each in its own  way, contributes as much to a diverse view of the state as other efforts do. If I were a rich man, I’d send a copy of each book to every lifestyle editor in the country, though the fact that these are stories without glitter or gloss or heroes, without unambiguously happy endings, makes me think I’ll never see them in the pages of Travel and Leisure.

About Richard Cass

Dick is the author of the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who walks into a dive bar in Boston . . . and buys it. Solo Act was a Finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Crime Fiction in 2017 and In Solo Time won the award in 2018. The third book in the series, Burton's Solo, came out in 2018 and Last Call at the Esposito in 2019. Sweetie Bogan's Sorrow was published in 2020, to thunderous pandemic acclaim. The sixth book in the series, Mickey's Mayhem, will come out in 2021. Dick lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth.
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6 Responses to New Maine, Old Maine, What’s Maine?

  1. Great post. And the irony is that even in southern Maine, if you travel west of I-95 about 30-45 minutes, you also find yourself in a different atmosphere altogether.

  2. Anonymous says:


  3. kaitcarson says:

    Great post. I’m in the County and the St. John Valley, which is almost another country. Wouldn’t live anyplace else. I saw the NYT article. Gave me a bit of a chuckle.

  4. John Clark says:

    There should be a heck of a lot more books like these two. I responded to a notice in the Bangor Daily News classifieds the other day. A graduate student at the University of Washington who was recruiting volunteers for a study about perceived language regions in Maine You were asked to click on map of the state and divide it into the way you saw how people spoke. It was a very interesting activity. Most of my writing in the past ten years has featured young adults dealing with the hard reality of not being on an equal footing with others. Given what’s happening with housing prices and the continuing mindset that Maine people should be happy with pissant wages and no health insurance, I am starting to think that my magical realism/urban fantasy fiction might me more like nonfiction.

  5. sandra Neily says:

    thanks, Dick!! That was needed. Maybe just send a book to the editor of Down East Magazine. For years when my daughter was young we traveled back and forth between Greenville and Falmouth (where I started a job with Maine Audubon and found, amazingly, an affordable rental: early 90’s). After growing up and living full time up north, she was now commuting up to our company on the weekends with me. One day on the way north, she said, “I wish I could take my classroom down here and send it up to Greenville.” And this from an 8 year old person who could see every week, the difference in the two worlds. Ironically, Maine Audubon sent me out to these non-Down East Magazine corners of Maine on various kinds of outreach. The first thing I suggested was they digitize all the snowmobile, ATV, boat launches and public access data oto the maps of high value wildlife habitat I took out with me. They didn’t not mean to “disappear” the people who lived there, but that’s the way it felt. When I used this new maps to talk about what people might value about habitat, the conversations were always much better, because we had “seen” the residents first.

  6. sandra neily says:

    ps: I gave my husband a copy of Mill Town recently. He grew up in Rumford. He’s racing through it but often sighs and groans. His brother died young of brain cancer. Again, thanks.

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