Winter in Maine, especially post-holidays when the state plunges into the icy, dark depths of January and February, provides a perfect time to explore more weighty Maine fiction. While summer days can trend toward so-called beach reads or bestsellers, a fireside seat or comfy couch in January is the time and place to explore a literary Maine—stories beyond the sweeping scenic vistas and tourist hot spots.
In This Time Might be Different, Elaine Ford (1938–2017) takes readers, as Maine author and poet Wesley McNair writes, “inside the state’s factories, churches, grocery and hardware stores, and apartment houses. We enter the homes of the poor and the beach houses of the affluent summer visitors, discovering what the inhabitants eat for dinner, and how they talk to each other as they eat. She shows us mud season in early spring, and what the mud looks like after the late snow falls on it.”
Ford was a creative writing professor at the University of Maine from 1986 to 2005 and then Professor Emerita until her death in autumn of 2017. The first story in Ford’s collection of short stories is the aptly named “The Depth of Winter,” and finds Emma stuck in a season that is dragging.
“Every winter seems longer,” Emma went on. “This time of year is the worst.”
She sliced a piece of bread and spread apple butter on it. “No wonder people take to bashing each other.”
While place is critical, at the heart of this book are deftly drawn characters who contemplate difficult choices: a young girl might have coffee with a stranger; a guy might decide to rob the local laundromat; or a widow might get in the car and just keep driving. Underneath the commonplace—running into an old lover, a longstanding feud, an unspoken divorce—readers will find a trace of dark humor, a sinister underpinning, or a profound irony.
McNair observes, “Ford understands that everything depends on the people she creates and the choices they make.”
Good choices and bad. Emma in “The Depth of Winter,” finds herself making choices and wondering if this is the time when things might be different.
“As she approached the trailer the dog inside began to bark. She guessed sooner or later the barking would roust him, so she didn’t go any closer, just stood there in the clearing and waited. The trailer was an old one, streaked with rust. It had two metal doors, blank as closed eyes. A cinder block stoop led to one door, nothing led to the other. You would need to jump a foot and a half or more off the ground to get through it. . . Then Pete opened the door above the stoop, holding the black dog by the choke collar. “It’s you,” he said. He was wearing a rumpled shirt, mostly unbuttoned, and the bottoms of long johns. His feet were bare.
“Can I come in?” she asked.
One of the best writers of authentic Maine fiction today is Jim Nichols. Nichols’s most recent work, Blue Summer, was released in the fall of 2020. His previous book, Closer All the Time, won the 2016 Maine Literary Award for Best Fiction and offers a series of connected stories to examine life in the fictitious small town of Baxter, Maine. Author Bill Roorbach, said the novel is “built of sentences so beautiful I want to keep them like wild honey in a jar.”
Like the folks in Ford’s book, the residents of Baxter are going nowhere fast. In a powerfully authentic Maine setting, Nichols explores the nature of connection––hoped for, missed, lost, and found. He brilliantly strings together the bittersweet stories of several different characters bound together by shared geography and the insular nature of small-town life. Like Johnny Lunden, a well-meaning war veteran with a penchant for the local bar and a deep but doomed love for his family, and Tomi Lambert, who observes the confusion of the adults around her as they struggle with accepting their fates. They cross paths in the moving chapter, “Tomi.”
“Mr. Lunden?” Tomi was still watching for the parade. “Do you know who Philip Metcalf was? He was married to my mom. They were only married a week before he went away.”
“Where did you hear that, honey?”
“I found out by myself.”
“Well,” Johnny Lunden said, “it was a long time ago.”
“They used to cut a rug!” Tomi said.
“Oh, yes,” he smiled. “They most certainly did.”
“Then they shot him down in the war.”
Johnny Lunden frowned and raised the flat bottle. Tomi watched him closely. She knew he was a drinker. Her parents had talked about him in the kitchen. Her father had said, “I don’t know why you give him the time of day,” and her mother had said, “Because we were friends, Roger,” and her father had said, “Ancient history.” But Johnny Lunden still seemed like a friend too.
Miriam Colwell (1917-2014) was born in Prospect Harbor and lived for many years in the house built by her great-great-great grandfather in 1817. As a resident and long-time postmistress, she watched change after change washover the fabled coast for nearly nine decades. She explored those themes in her novels, including Contentment Cove, which is set in a Down East coastal village in the 1950s when social clashes and changing values were starting to tear at the fabric of Maine’s traditional way of life. Originally written by Colwell in the 1950s, the manuscript was set aside and forgotten. She rediscovered it in 2005 and Islandport published its edition in 2007.
Contentment Cove is a riveting story of class distinctions during a time of cultural change. Dot-Fran, Hilary, and Mina are three residents of the village. Dot-Fran, the youngest, is a native; she runs the town’s drug store. Hilary, middle-aged, is a worldly artist. The wealthy Mina and her husband retired to the town after being enchanted with its charm during a one-night visit. Their disparate lives become entwined and eventually clash tragically.
The story—which features recognizable “Maine” characters as well as those “from away”—takes place over only a matter of days one summer. And while Colwell infuses Contentment Cove with humor, it is nonetheless a novel that deals with serious issues many of which remain relevant today, none more compelling than the erosion of one way of Maine life and the evolution of another. Colwell believed that three of her novels, Wind off the Water, Young, and Contentment Cove (written over a span of fifteen years) clearly reflect the changes that beset the coast of Maine during that time.
“In their own small way,” Colwell said when the novel was released. “I think these three books bear witness to and portray the changing demographics and changing culture that has taken place along the coastal areas over the last fifty years.”