I’ve been re-reading Ruth Moore lately, inspired to revisit her novels by a familiar bumper sticker I spotted when we were in Deer Isle in May looking for migrating warblers. These blue and white declarations of literary loyalty are a common sight in Hancock County, which is as it should be.
For those unfamiliar with Ruth Moore, she was born in 1903 on Gott’s Island, which lies off Tremont on Mount Desert Island. She left Maine to attend college in upstate New York, and eventually wound her way back home in 1947 after stints working in New York City and California as a secretary for NAACP founder Mary White Ovington, an assistant to novelist Alice Tisdale Hobart and an editor at Reader’s Digest. She was writing fiction all the while, and her first book, The Weir, was published in 1943. Three years later, her most commercially-successful novel, Spoonhandle, was released. It sold more than a million copies and was adapted into a movie called Deep Waters. Moore disdained the film, but it provided her with the resources to move back to Maine and spend the rest of her life writing from the home in Bass Harbor she shared with her partner, Eleanor Mayo, also a writer.
One of the most well-known Maine writers of the twentieth century, Moore was lauded for her novels about small town Maine. Islandport Press has re-published six of Moore’s fourteen novels along with a collection of short stories and two books of poetry.
Her timeless, quietly powerful stories are threaded with the common theme of change. Change within communities driven by economic forces beyond the control of local people. Change wrought by summer folks who brought their values and their money to the Maine coast and expected the locals to hop-to. Change in mores, as women moved into the paid workforce and asserted themselves independently of the men in their lives.
Because Moore captured community in a way few writers manage she sometimes is spoken of in the same breath with William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Flannery O’Connor, who also wrote memorable books peopled by characters who illuminate their distinctive settings. The comparison is apt. Moore’s books are lit from within by her intimate knowledge of life on the Maine coast, and her idiosyncratic characters stay on your mind long after you read the final page.
In Spoonhandle, she takes the reader along on a rough crossing between the fictional town of Bellport and Spoon Island, with Hod Stilwell at the helm of a powerful, new-to-him dragger he’d just bought on the installment plan to replace an old tub with a sputtery engine:
He held the wheel lightly, his head cocked a little as if listening; he seemed almost to sense, a split second before his hand on the wheel could have felt, the stress of each jerking plunge and climb. When the boat needed it, he eased her, letting the bow fall off slightly into the foaming troughs as they flashed by; when she could take it, he drove her, head-on. The big engine sang steadily. The glass of the windscreen was blind and streaming.
She was seeing, Ann realized, more than ordinary precision in the use of a rather fine instrument. The boat, to Hod, was something more than a means of transportation to take him home quickly. It seemed to her, watching is absorption and the awareness of his long brown fingers on the wheel, that he was trying to establish some relationship between himself and the boat—between his own skill and the shaped wood, the bolted metals, which by themselves were nothing.
The narrator is Ann Freeman, a character who perhaps was autobiographical to some extent. In Spoonhandle, Ann has returned to Downeast Maine from the big city after publishing a first book. She’s a writer who struggles with the knowledge people in her hometown think she’s either rich or crazy (or maybe both) for believing she can make a living putting words on the page.
[Ann] was well aware that the gossip around the village had put her in the moneyed class. After all, a thing like a book, people said, you couldn’t possibly get less than fifty thousand for it.
“That’s all you know,” she said to John. “You’d fall flat on your face if I told you writing was just like lobstering. You don’t get your seed back.”
“Haw!” John said derisively. “What’d you do it for, then?”
“Why˗” Ann was taken aback. What did she do it for? “I think, a lot of the time, I work for the fun of it, John,” she said soberly.
And once it had seemed like a rich kind of world to live in, she thought suddenly, the world of ideas and sentences, the words marching down the page, the hope, seldom more than that, that you’d said what you wanted to.”
It’s impossible to capture in this brief post the enduring joy of a Ruth Moore book. Her clear-eyed understanding of human nature allowed her to capture essential aspects of Maine in sentences so perfect I often stop and read them a second and even a third time, savoring the truths they reveal.
Maine libraries and booksellers either stock her books or can find them for you. For serious fans, the Ruth Moore Collection is housed at the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England in Portland. As for scoring a bumper sticker, you’re on your own, but Mount Desert Island is always a good bet.
Brenda Buchanan brings years of experience as a journalist and a lawyer to her crime fiction. She has published three books featuring Joe Gale, a newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. She is now hard at work on new projects. FMI, go to http://brendabuchananwrites.com