Rural characters, from the minds of two Maine fiction writers, part ways on the road to contentment.
By Elizabeth Strout
270 pp. Random House, 2008. $25.00
The School on Heart’s Content Road
By Carolyn Chute
384 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008. $24.00.
For the second time in this young century, the board of the Pulitzer Prize has looked to the small towns of Maine for a compelling literary account of American life. On May 28, in a ceremony at Columbia University, Elizabeth Strout received the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for Olive Kitteridge, a collection of thirteen short stories set in and around the coastal town of Crosby, Maine.
Strout’s win came on the heels of Richard Russo’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, which was set in a declining mill town in central Maine. Nor was Russo’s novel the first in this setting; the Maine Sunday Telegram’s Literary Map of Maine gives an interactive look at some 50 notable books set in or inspired by specific locations in the state.
One name that appears on the Telegram’s map is Carolyn Chute, whose fifth novel, The School on Heart’s Content Road, was released in late 2008. At first glance, Strout and Chute are a study in contrasts: Strout grew up in Maine, but she’s spent the past twenty years in New York, and in interviews she gushes about the pleasures of the city’s galleries and museums. Chute, on the other hand, lives in a compound at the end of an unpaved road in rural western Maine, without a computer or a working telephone. The New York Times has described her as earthy.
Beyond these stereotypes of city mouse and country mouse, though, Strout and Chute share a profound sense of ambivalence about the modern world and the toll that it has taken on Maine’s families and communities. (“No one seems to wear a suit to church anymore,” Henry Kitteridge reflects in the first story of Strout’s collection.) Yet they differ in approaching what to do with this sense of loss and belatedness, how to find one’s footing and maintain one’s dignity in the face of upheaval.
These two writers, when read in dialogue with one another, illuminate the difficulties of living mindfully in these waning years of the American empire. Both Olive Kitteridge and The School on Heart’s Content Road position rural people not at the periphery of that struggle but at its very center.
Heavy-set, prickly, overbearing, Olive Kitteridge is the kind of character who isn’t easy to love. In the story “Winter Concert,” Bob Houlton watches Olive and her husband, Henry, as they walk into church. Henry touches Olive on the arm as they make their way up the center aisle, suggesting that they take a pew nearby. Olive shakes her head and they sit, instead, two pews closer to the front of the church. “I don’t know how he can stand her,” Bob murmurs to his wife.
Retired after thirty-two years of teaching at Crosby Junior High School, Olive is fiercely devoted to her only son, Christopher, who practices medicine nearby. When Christopher meets a woman from out of town, then marries her after a whirlwind courtship, Olive takes an instant dislike to her new daughter-in-law. And when Suzanne’s lack of enthusiasm for New England winters prompts the couple to sell their house in Crosby and move to California, Olive recalls that “it was as though splinters of wood were shoved into her heart.”
Learning to live with disappointment is a recurring theme in Olive Kitteridge, and Strout is at her best when she is documenting the tiny ways that her characters learn to comfort themselves. The gentle touch of the dentist as he fills a cavity becomes a reprieve from a loveless marriage. A wife caring for her dying husband passes the time with a basket of travel brochures for vacations she knows they’ll never take. And Olive learns to take the highway home from the mall out at Cook’s Corner, rather than driving by the house with the big bowed window that her son had left behind.
Strout’s sense of compassion for her characters is never in doubt, yet she chooses to present the causes of their suffering as basically unknowable. Is it the frailty of the flesh or some trick played by an indifferent universe? (None of this claptrap about God’s will for Olive; she’s an avowed atheist.) Even when the rent at Henry’s pharmacy skyrockets and he is forced to sell out to a national chain, no one speaks up to suggest that anything could have been done about it.
Instead, Olive just sighs, “Sad, the way the world is going.” Strout goes on, “It was always sad, the way the world was going. And always a new age dawning.” Here, both personal tragedies and historical processes are understood to be beyond anyone’s control, things best weathered with a dose of Yankee stoicism and eventually transcended in fleeting moments of grace. “Little bursts,” Olive calls these moments, “a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee.” In Olive’s view, these little bursts are what redeem us.
If The School on Heart’s Content Road were a three-ring circus, then Gordon St. Onge would be its ringmaster. Physically powerful, charismatic, he is the founder of a community called the Settlement, set out on the outskirts of Egypt, Maine. Gordon (otherwise known as “the Prophet”) is deeply troubled by the encroachment of global capitalism and American militarism on the lives of his family, and so the Settlement does what it can to operate off the grid: they raise their own food, they generate their own power, and they have their own brand of Settlement law. Under which Gordon has at least eleven wives.
Let’s face it: Olive Kitteridge and the “nice folks” of Crosby, Maine, would think Gordon St. Onge a loony. Indeed, community disapproval of what goes on out at the Settlement features prominently in the plot of Heart’s Content Road, and government provocateurs are eventually sent in to determine whether the Settlement is a threat to national security. Yet, even as Gordon thunders on about the “faceless unrestrained international mammoneering” of the global banking system, it remains clear that what the Settlement stands for, first and foremost, is the right to be left alone.
At one point in the novel, Gordon almost seems to anticipate the “people’s veto” initiative currently attempting to overturn gay marriage legislation in Maine:
“He imagines for a moment how it would be for all those he loves if, yes indeed, there was a direct vote on every issue by everybody in America; if, in fact, they had time for such. He sees legions of schoolteachers, of every school and every grade, marching chin-up to the polls. And school principals. And social workers. Only the most thin-lipped of them all, chin-up agents of the system. The prissy and the puritanical, the hard-assed and the switch-flippers. Those who despise hair. Those who despise free inquiry of the mind. Those who despise untidiness. The majority, wielding their whips and their pens, voting away the lives of the Settlement people and—yeah—voting away the patriot types, all the old-fashioned types, leaving them landless and without honor. Like a bad movie that has too many pilots, too many say-so’s. Like too many cooks. Too many chiefs. Like a sky of huge hail.”
In one of the novel’s climactic scenes, Gordon addresses the crowd of weirdos, true believers, and plain old curiosity-seekers who have descended on the Settlement for an event planned by the Settlement children. The TV cameras circle. Gordon has been drinking and whips himself into a lather; he finishes the speech by bellowing: “GOD SAVE THE REPUBLIC OF MAINE!” It is ironic that these six words are the soundbite that all of the networks run the next day, because in point of fact Gordon couldn’t care less about secession as a political process. The secession that he is proposing is a more radical one, a fundamental rejection of the whole mad network of coercion and acquisition and greed. The real soundbite from Gordon’s speech came five pages earlier: “FORGET THEMMMMM!”
Now, it’s fair to ask whether it is realistic for a family or a community to simply turn its back on the modern capitalist system; after all, Thoreau popped into town for groceries, and Chute herself seems ambivalent about Gordon’s demagoguery. When Mickey, a shy fifteen-year-old boy who gets drawn into life at the Settlement, overhears a toddler with his thumb in his mouth spouting dogma about corporatism, he muses: “Everyone thinks the kid is cute. But I am thinking how they all talk just like the Prophet. Probably those over a day old don’t suck on bottles. They just talk.”
Gordon St. Onge and his clan differ from Olive Kitteridge and the townspeople of Crosby in that they have identified the features of the modern world that they perceive as oppressive, and have made common cause with one another in an effort to change them. For Olive, there is no changing the world, only adjusting to the demands that it makes and finding beauty, however fleeting, where it presents itself. For Gordon, “if you are jolted awake in the night to the smell of smoke, you do not open the bedroom door if it feels burning hot to your palm. You find a window to climb out of. Alternate route!”
It remains to be seen, in the years ahead, whether rural communities in Maine and across the United States are able to invent an alternate route for themselves. In the meantime, the crystalline prose of Elizabeth Strout and the fertile, daring imagination of Carolyn Chute will signpost the way.