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.