There’s a certain kind of book to be found while browsing through a section in stacks at the Rumford Library. It’s a nonfiction genre, depicting a kind of life in toto, but if the genre has a name…. Let this be an attempt to describe it, and then a name will emerge from the description.
I’ve chosen three examples. The first is Louise Dickinson Rich’s book, We Took to the Woods written in the early 1940s. It recounts Mrs. Rich’s experiences of living geographically cut off from the outside world in the Richardson Lakes Region of Western Maine. The second example is Annette Jackson’s My Life in the Maine Woods: A Game Warden’s Wife in the Allagash Country, published in 1954. Bernice Richmond’s Our Island Lighthouse, published in 1947 and depicting her summer life on a tiny island in Frenchman’s Bay, will serve as the third example.
With these three brief descriptions we see similarities. Even though they were all written within 12 or 13 years of one another, this time-period of the 1940s and ’50s is not a prerequisite of the genre. Yet, within the scope of this piece, the time held in common does represent a period of moral vitality and innocence in Maine’s culture. Another similarity is the remoteness of these women’s lives.
With the exception of Mrs. Richmond, they lived many miles from the nearest town which could be reached only by difficulty and water. Bernice Richmond, however, had also to row a boat through trying seas in order to go grocery shopping, so she, like the others, had to stock up for long periods of time. A third resemblance in these works, evident in the above description, is the fact that each author is a woman; however, I would not count gender as a genre prerequisite either. Therefore, of the similarities, remoteness is the one definite component of this genre.
These books are autobiographical of a particular and somewhat brief period in the writers’ lives, and they are only slightly introspective. These are accounts that celebrate more the externals of life, and show these external’s filtering and informing life through the authors’ souls. An example of this would be Mrs. Richmond’s “Bride of the Middle Ground.” This is her mythopoeic descriptive name for the spouting white water that rose rarely, mysteriously, like a great veil, in the midst of the sea between two islands. A ledge 17 ft. below low-water gave rise to it during winter storms, but the author, usually away in winter, was thrilled to witness it during a hurricane one summer. It made her thoughtful to recall this recurrence while watching the peaceful and seemingly deep water afterward. The reader is able to relate the phenomenon to the author’s inner experience of the hurricane while alone on a small island.
Then there’s Mrs. Jackson’s Allagash observation of Time’s strange experience for people living alone in the Woods. Time would pass in the form of an event or advent, such as “a dry spell,… blackflies,… a drifting piece of ice,… or people you expect to see.” Then, Mrs. Rich’s Richardson Lake experiences gave her B Pond, which became material for her imagination as a place usually halting her with gifts, enchanting and enticing. They gave her just one day of perfect beauty and harmony on a fishing trip. It was a day when her physicality is live and coupled with something rare—blessed. Six to a dozen times twixt the birthing and dying we know, she says of it: In this moment you’ve moved into the “pattern of the universe.”
These books are adventures in domestic life in an unusual and at times difficult setting. They include recipes, showing eating a delight, heightening its place as a good part of life though an everyday act. Mrs. Richmond shows us how to make a good hot toddy, suitable for bone-chilling island nights; Mrs. Rich is careful in explicit bean-baking; Mrs. Jackson fries slashed trout in fat from salt pork immediately after it is caught.
They each have chores that are turned into soul nourishment: white washing island buildings, fly-tying, lakeshore clothes washing, hunting. Daily life, under their hands, in their situations, is uplifting, invigorating, rarely tedious or deadening. If wood must be chopped for warmth, ice cut for future refrigeration, or supplies landed hardly and only at certain times, the same environment also provides an atmosphere of Maine that is fresh or foggy, brisk and tasty. The sight is full of mountains, great pines, moving seas; peopled with creatures human, or white-winged, flippered, furred or antlered. There is interaction with all, enriching the way of the writer in ordinary momentary life.
This is all Maine.
We get also a sampling of the socio-economic culture in which these people lived. Louise Dickinson Rich tells us about pulp logging and river driving. Mrs. Jackson presents law-enforcement and game management. Mrs. Richmond gives lobstering and working fishermen. We learn interesting facts about occupations not our own, and get a feel for the culture of each. We find out how herring weirs are constructed and how they confuse and capture small fish. We learn how pulpwood is boomed down-lake, how game wardens get their prisoners to court on snowshoes, and how sports and woods people interact.
Something else the books have in common is terror encountered as a matter of place. On the island is a hurricane without company. In the Allagash it is a marauding beer encountered at night. In the Richardson Lakes it is self, wandering lost in the woods.
They search the deep needs of the human soul, also as a matter of course, and in a simple manner. Mrs. Rich writes of this after her husband accidentally gashes his arm and comes to her for aid. Living hard made her know herself needed. Everything in this life yields interdependence unknown without these tangible material facts. In this she gives the core and purpose of her life in the woods and defines as well the essence of these unpretentious books.
Louise Dickinson Rich calls her humorous book light, escapist reading. Bernice Richmond’s island book is exquisitely written and true in its imagery. Annette Jackson considers, as part of her potpourri, the history of the Allagash as one familiar with the area from childhood. Should we classify these as escapist fare? The world they write is real, yet we escape from our own very different existence when we read. We leave home for exploration and adventure, when we immerse ourselves here—only to find ourselves encountering real life and perhaps something of our own familiar souls.
A list of the elements of this genre would include the autobiographical experience, remoteness of setting, inconvenient domestic life, place-related occupations, and a feeling for the underlying nature of things. I can think of no name for the genre even now, but with the Maine regional connection, any name found could be modified by that proper noun:
A Maine Modified Genre.
© 2020 by S. Dorman