Four Takes: On Maine, The Boston Sunday Globe
July 25, 2021
In July, the summer people fan out to homes in Maine. For those who can only fantasize, books set in the state offer a fine alternative. An impressive roster encompasses writers from Thoreau and E.B. White to Ann Beattie, Richard Russo, and Elizabeth Strout (do not miss her Olive Kitteridge books). And though not all of Stephen King’s books are set in Maine, he himself is.
Apart from its natural beauty, Maine has become a dream destination for foodies. These days, more is in store than boiled lobster, and Erin French is one reason why. French operates the phenomenally successful Lost Kitchen, in out-of-the-way Freedom. (Reservations are so sought-after it is best to assume you will never get one, and make your peace with it.)
In a candid new memoir, “Finding Freedom,” French warmly describes her upbringing in the small Midcoast town. By age 12, she was helping out at her father’s diner, having already graduated from cleanup to line cook. The work was grueling, but French acquired skills that would never desert her, along with a love of cooking for others.
Her rise was improbable. Pregnant at 21, French dropped out of Northeastern and returned home. Marital breakdown and addiction ruined her first attempt at a restaurant, which began as a pop-up in Belfast. For a time, she lost custody of her son.
Many readers will be inspired by French’s resourcefulness and determination. (She still has no formal training, and claims that her knife skills remain mediocre.) Others will simply savor her descriptions of the food.
If French’s Maine has discovered briny oysters with a red onion and beet mignonette, W.S. Winslow’s remains the land of dispirited casseroles and harsh realities. As her debut novel, “The Northern Reach,” makes clear, the Maine of summer people is not the Maine of year-round inhabitants. Lobstering is dangerous; economic opportunities are elusive; and winters are dreaded.
Winslow has set herself the ambitious challenge of re-creating an entire community within a relatively few pages. Though at times the connections are hard to follow, her novel memorably depicts the intersecting lives of several families. Personal tragedies reverberate across generations, giving rise to alcoholism, estrangement, and divorce.
Yet Winslow’s clear love for her characters, and the landscape they inhabit, bobs continually to the surface. By focusing on key moments in multiple lives, she has created an ensemble portrait greater than the sum of its parts.
Like much of the country, Maine has struggled with the loss of key industries and the need to reinvent its economy. Once a center of textile and shoe manufacturing, Lewiston presents a test case.
Cynthia Anderson, who grew up nearby, witnessed the city’s decline firsthand, and mourned as the downtown she once loved turned shabby. In “Home Now: How 6,000 Refugees Transformed an American Town,” she charts an in-migration that began in 2001, shortly adding several thousand African Muslims to the community.
To tell Lewiston’s story, she focuses on five immigrants, among them the remarkable Fatuma Hussein, a feminist leader and mother of eight. Anderson balances empathy toward the newcomers with a sympathetic understanding of the original residents’ diminished hopes. An evenhanded portrait of Jared Bristol, an activist who fears a nationwide Islamic takeover, exemplifies the depth of her reportage.
Amid rising anti-immigrant sentiment, Lewiston has sometimes drawn national attention. In one notorious incident, in 2006, a pig’s head was rolled through the doorway of a mosque. Identified and charged, the alleged perpetrator died by suicide.
Anderson ends with tempered optimism, citing fitful progress over nearly two decades of change. Still, her most astute observation may be that poverty has united Lewiston’s newcomers and longstanding residents in continuing trauma.
A more upscale Maine is the setting for Alexander Chee’s first novel, the somewhat misleadingly titled “Edinburgh,” in which a dozen choir boys are molested by their director. The protagonist, nicknamed Fee, is half Korean, and embraces his grandparents’ folk tales in an attempt to overcome the emotional damage.
Chee brings abundant literary gifts to this harrowing story. He is superb on the all-consuming power of adolescent infatuation; the way in which children both know and do not know things; and the guilt of those who have survived abuse.
Apart from some familiar place names, “Edinburgh” wears its Maine credentials lightly. The tragedy that claims Fee’s beloved friend Peter needs Maine only in the sense that King Lear needs a heath. Korea, a source of healing myth, is more important but relies on Maine for contrast.
As the novel opens, Fee’s grandparents have left their homeland behind, and moved in with the family in Cape Elizabeth. “Korea is in trouble,” Fee’s grandfather confides, but he adds: “Maine, Maine is okay. Many fat people. But okay.”
Fee’s grandfather may never disclose all that he has suffered, but the novel’s final scene, at Fort Williams, suggests that his American grandson will be OK.