The Backroad Librarian: The Ballad of Gordon and Olive
[imgbelt img=maine-bikers320.jpg]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.
“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!”
[imgcontainer left] [img:michael_and_carolyn_chute32.jpg] [source]Second Vermont RepublicMichael and Carolyn Chute
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.