First of all, as you regular readers may have noticed, that weeklong States break hasn't prevented me from falling behind the state-a-day plan again. That's likely to be true for the next bit: I'm fairly deep underwater with everything else right now in my finite days (and find myself spending more and more time on each state, for good reasons), so for the next couple of weeks, while things are frantic, I'm going to be spacing out the posts a bit. But we have some excellent guests coming up, including today, so stay tuned.
Today we have Heidi Julavits, who in her short career has published almost as many novels (3) as her native state, Maine, has electoral votes (4): The Mineral Palace, The Effect of Living Backwards, and The Uses of Enchantment, none of which, however, are set in the Pine Tree State (again, a completely unknown and inadequate state nickname...). She's also one of the founders and editors of the lovely magazine, The Believer, which I still buy at the store rather than subscribe to because I don't want to lose the fun of buying it in person.
Despite being born & bred in Maine, her State by State essay and her book list below are both full of the From Aways, the non-natives whose acceptance in their adopted state is apparently predicated on their capacity to amuse, and with whom she has come, despite her birth certificate, to identify. Here's a favorite section from her Maine piece:
I was born in Portland, Maine. I left the state when I was eighteen and returned at the age of thirty-three. My husband and I bought a house in a town three hours northeast of Portland. Thus I am a From Away in my home state.
The easy thing about being a From Away, however, is that your community has extremely low expectations for you. You're meant to screw up regularly at great cost to your homeowner's insurance, because such screwups are entertaining and an excellent way to warm the hearts of even the most indifferent natives. We proved highly entertaining. We showed up and promptly burst our pipes, ruining a room that had, based on the plaster and lathe we had to chunk into garbage bags, not been touched in nearly 200 years. In other words, we were the stupidest people in almost 200 hundred years to live in this house. We were welcomed throughout the land.
Here are her choices for the four books to represent Maine, along with a short introduction (I should mention that I was all set to put Stephen King on the Maine quarter until she went completely anticanonical and left him--along with Carolyn Chute, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Edna St. Vincent Millay--off the list. I'm more than happy to have a chance to engrave Robert McCloskey instead):
Few authors have succeeded in writing about Maine in a way that satisfies the native Mainer. I've been privy to many discussions where an out-of-Stater has attempted to capture the state on the page, and their efforts are mocked, derided, and ultimately dismissed by the natives. This is a harsh crowd. Immortalize them at your peril.
That said, Geoffrey Wolff wrote a fantastic nonfiction book about Maine called Edge of Maine; in it he cops to the folly of his undertaking (as a non-native who now lives full-time in Maine, he knows the dangerous territory upon which he treads), and does a pretty great job of claiming to know nothing while actually knowing quite a lot. It's some of the best writing about sailing on the coast I've encountered as well.
Another From Away who captured the loneliness, and the idiocy, of moving to Maine, is Elizabeth Etnier. Her book, On Gilbert Head, written in 1937 and sadly out of print, documents the travails she and her husband endure after moving to a remote point of land, and how they survive their first winter, and how their marriage starts to unravel. This is a genre unto itself--the out-of-print book written by the wife of the couple that's come to Maine to live a more pure existence, only to see their marriage go to hell.
The best books about Maine, however, tend to be children's books. Really there's no beating Robert McCloskey's One Morning In Maine. The rag-a-muffin children who are left to run along the grungy seashore unsupervised by their parents. The admonishment to swallow emotions. The irritating failure of outboard motors to catch. The prevailing bleak religion of Murphy's Law and the salvation found in ice cream and clam chowder. I used to identify with the kids and their desperation for food but now I identify with the parents--particularly the father when he has to row INTO the wind. Some day I hope to identify with the harbor seal.
Finally--Lost on a Mountain in Maine, as told to Joseph Egan by Donn Fendler, is a real-life adventure story (appropriate for ages 9-12, but adults like it too) about a boy who wanders away from his family and gets lost on Mount Katahdin for twelve days. He's bitten to hell by mosquitos and suffers terribly, but ultimately finds his way back to civilization by following telephone wires. For people who have vacationed in Maine during a bad weather spell, the book functions as a pretty cathartic metaphor for their own experience of miserable lostness.