Dispatches from the Real Maine

Earlier this summer I moderated a discussion between two novelists with debuts out from Down East Books, Shonna Humphrey, author of Show Me Good Land, and Jim Nichols, author of Hull Creek. Both Shonna and Jim are native Mainers which automatically distinguishes them from the majority of writers (e.g. J. Courteny Sullivan) who have treated the Pine Tree State in fiction. Shonna and Jim are also unusual in writing about blue-collar people that don't make their way into print all that often.

In one of my questions I cited Sanford Phippen seminal (albeit dated) essay "Missing from the Books: My Maine," which was something of a rallying cry back in the 1980s among native Maine authors like Carolyn Chute and Cathie Pelletier. Phippen had little uses for books written by people "from away" in Down East parlance.

Here's one of our exchanges:

Paul: You both deal with the tension between locals and people from away in your books. InShow Me Good Land, it’s more aspirational. Rhetta is a woman with an out-of-state license plate, taking pictures of the potato fields with dreams of escape. In Hull Creek, Troy Hull has a more direct conflict with the well-to-do people who are buying up his coastal town. I was struck by the similarity and I wonder where this impulse to deal with this tension as a subject came from?

Shonna: My entire book started as a nonfiction essay about potato picking, and so that part is drawn from life because I did pick potatoes. I wasn’t very good at it. It was hard work, and I didn’t last very long. There was this sort of voyeurism that happened where people would just stop along the side of the road and watch us work. I imagined what it would be like for those people and what they saw when they saw all the kids picking in the potato fields. I actually did see the potato harvest on a calendar in the airport one time, and I thought, wow, that looks really beautiful and lovely but that wasn’t really my experience with it.

Jim: For me it was working for the air service [in Owls Head] and flying both fishermen and summer people out to the [Penobscot Bay] islands — I have worked at either restaurants or airports for a long time. There is always that tension between wealthy people who share the same ground as people whose ancestors settled it and maybe who can’t afford to live there anymore. And you read stories about a fifth generation home that has to be sold because the family can’t afford the taxes. To me that’s a very sad and troubling thing.

Indeed, it is a sad and troubling thing—also one of the reasons I wrote Trespasser.