Novels Are the Maine Thing
July 2017

Maine. The land of lobsters and blueberries and moose. The setting for famous children’s books (One Morning in Maine, Blueberries for Sal, Miss Rumphius, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) and for even more famous scary and suspenseful page-turners (by Stephen King).

However, I don’t happen writing about charming children’s books or scary thrillers. Instead, I am recommending several wonderful novels and memoirs—all of which are set in Maine and some of which were written by Mainers.

Elizabeth Strout: Elizabeth Strout has very close ties to Maine. The fictional Shirley Falls, Maine (based on her own hometown) serves as the setting of four of her six novels—and the abandonment small-town dwellers feel when their loved ones depart is a common theme. Strout’s style is spare, understated, but bursting with feeling. They are quiet, domestic narratives packed with emotional insight.

My all-time favorite Strout book is by no means her best known: The Burgess Boys is about a fractious family that comes together to defend their nephew, accused of a religious hate crime. The protagonist of Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is the embodiment of the deep-rooted world where Strout grew up. Anything Is Possible, also set in Maine, is more grim than her others, but also full of forgiveness and gentleness. In the words of the NPR reviewer, Strout always finds a “sweet spot in this tangle of emotional wreckage.”

Richard Russo: By far Russo’s best book is set in the decaying blue-collar town of Empire Falls, Maine during the fall of the local logging and textile empire. The book features a set of interweaving and unfolding plots involving interlocking secrets—as well as a large cast of memorable characters. The Pulitzer-Prize winning Empire Falls is told in a lively, comic, affectionate, and uncomplicated style.

I also liked Russo’s Bridge of Sighs, partially set in a town much like Empire Falls, this one located in upstate New York, where Russo was born and Elsewhere, a memoir about his crazy OCD mother. But, I have to admit I don’t like all of Russo’s books: Risk Pool and Nobody’s Fool are among my least favorite.

Monica Wood: Monica Wood is a Maine author who deserves to be better known. When We Were the Kennedys is the slightly misleading title of her memoir, set in another failing Maine small town. Her father dies suddenly when she is nine years old, but the novel focuses on the family, not the grief. It’s also a record of a vanished way of life. Wood explores not only her family’s mourning with the national end of innocence and the “one brief shining moment” of Camelot.

As she describes in her memoir, Wood grew up in Mexico, Maine, to a family of devout Irish Catholic paper mill workers. The theme of family infuses her work, which includes four other novels, plus numerous books for teachers and writers.

John Irving: Although he’s not a Mainiac himself, the plots of his earlier books tend to be quite maniacal. However, I wouldn’t put these three in the maniacal category! One of Irving’s most moving books, The Cider House Rules, is an epic set in a Maine orphanage and dealing with the theme of abortion. Another great Irving book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, is also a New England family epic, partially set in a New England boarding school, dealing with the consequences of the Vietnam War. A third favorite of mine is his most recent, Avenue of Mysteries, a dreamy back-and-forth story of a Mexican “dump kid” turned successful American writer. All of his books move easily back and forth from drama to comedy to tragedy.

Irving has written 15 novels over the last 50 years. Irving’s novels are big books, with big themes and plots and characters; in the words of EditorEric, they are “outrageously funny, emotionally affecting, grotesquely shocking and ferociously affirming.” Much as I love Strout and Russo, it seems odd to me that they have won Pulitzers, and John Irving has not even been nominated for one.