Tag Archives: Maine

“Stern Men: A Novel” by Elizabeth Gilbert

I read this book because Gilbert’s Signature of All Things was such a delight. Stern Men was another truly great read. For starters, there’s the title pun – stern as in the back of a boat, stern as in taciturn and disapproving. And the stern man is number two on a boat, after the captain. Often the secondary characters in this book are unexpectedly interesting and important. That’s a lot to pack into a short title!

A quick plot synopsis would be: Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending.

Stern Men takes place off the coast of Maine, on a pair of imaginary islands occupied by lobstermen, their families and a few odd hangers on. In the past, the granite industry had temporarily brought prosperity and “summer people” to the islands. The ancient heir to that industry connives and manipulates to bring the island communities into modern times and save them from economic ruin, but we don’t learn this until the very end of the book.

The setting dominates Stern Men more than is the case in Signature of All Things.

The story is told from the from the point of view of Ruth Thomas, who returns to her island home after attending an exclusive boarding school in Delaware. Ruth is the granddaughter of an orphan adopted by the granite magnate’s family. She does not “belong” anywhere, but chooses island life. The time frame is the 1960s and 1970s. Most of what happens in the US bypasses the isolated islands. There is ONE reference to marijuana and a passing allusion to the Viet Nam war.

I was, of course, reminded of Linda Greenlaw, who wrote three nonfiction books about fishing off the coast of Maine before trying her hand at fiction with the murder mystery Slipknot. I liked Greenlaw’s lively and amusing nonfiction, but Slipknot lacked depth. I think she was trying to emulate Janet Evanovich. AND she was pushing a message. I’m getting tired of fiction with a message. Greenlaw’s message is explicated in an “Author’s Note” at the very end of the book. Please! Tell me a story or send me a message – but don’t do both!

There is, in fact, a message in Stern Men, but it’s tucked into a rant by a minor character, the stiff necked local pastor, who understands too well what damage greed and stubbornness can do to a community. He’s one of the minor characters that makes me wish for MORE – another chapter, another book, more of this wonderful fictional world Gilbert has created.

Stern Men qualifies as literary fiction, a term I still don’t entirely understand, but from me it is a high compliment, like saying that something may stand the test of time.

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“Orphan Train – a novel” by Christina Baker Kline

I read this because it was selected by the college where I work as the “common reading” for 2014. A copy will be given to each incoming Freshman. Some of these students will read it for their Freshman seminar. The entire college will be invited to hear the author speak. Some students may hear nothing more about it. (No one is willing to tell the faculty what they must include in a course, and there will never be a common reading that is universally popular.)

About half of the common readings are novels. There has been at least one anthology, one autobiography, a popular, semi-scientific approach to the supernatural, and a genuinely scientific book about the Mississippi River (Bayou Farewell). I think the common reading program is nine years old.

The plot? A girl who has spent much of her life in (low quality) foster care meets an old woman whose early years were also disrupted by suffering and grief. Each gains important insight.

So what are the good and bad points of this book for college Freshmen? Let me evaluate it against the four “pillars” of the college – global outlook, engagement, sustainability and learning. (How it pains me to see “learning” so marginalized!) Let’s see, on a scale of 1 to 5…

  • Globalization – 3 points. Immigration (Ireland to USA) is a major feature, as well as migration (involuntary) within the US.
  • Engagement – 1 point. There’s a social worker. Aren’t they automatically “engaged”? One of the protagonists is doing community service in order to avoid a criminal charge for theft.
  • Sustainability – 0. It’s not there. (I didn’t miss it.)
  • Learning – 4 points. Both protagonists love books and reading. The young woman “finds” herself academically as she is finishing high school. The old woman professes to be indifferent to the “information superhighway”, then plunges in with cheerful enthusiasm – starts shopping on line and using Facebook. Maybe 5 points for learning!

All that said, I give the book a B-. I like more development of character. I found the structure, skipping back and forth between two plot lines, distracting. I think college students should be offered something more challenging. This is too close to being a standard “feel good” book. But (by way of redemption) there’s one plot twist that surprised me. A child (I won’t tell you whose) is given up for adoption. I wonder how students will react to that?