Marooned on Boon Island, survivors eat ship’s carpenter

Kenneth Roberts needed no assistance in creating a compelling plot for his historical novel Boon Island.

The facts are horrific.

Boon Island by Kenneth Roberts

Doubleday, 1956. 274 pp. 1956 best-seller #10. My Grade: B-.

On December 11, 1710, the Nottingham, an English vessel headed for Portsmouth with a load of butter and cheese, struck Boon Island off the Maine coast in the middle of a nor’easter.

Lighthouse and three buildings on small rocky island
Tiny Boon Island seen in a 1911 postcard. The lighthouse was built in 1854-55.

Of the 14 on board when the ship sank, only 10 lived to be rescued January 4, 1711.

The marooned men included a boy of perhaps 8 or 10  and his partially disabled father, the captain’s epileptic brother, and seamen both stupid and cruel.

Without food, tools, or fire, the cold, hungry survivors ate seaweed, raw mussels, a seagull, and finally, the ship’s carpenter.

Had it not been for the courage and leadership of Captain John Dean, it’s unlikely that anyone would have survived.

Despite the riveting events, Boon Island is a dull novel.

The narrator is too remote, the characters too static, the descriptions too vague, the language too modern and sanitary to make readers feel they are at the scene.

However, the story itself is so incredible, if you pretend Boon Island is the printed description of a film and imagine the visuals, you’ll can make it a compelling read.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni


Love and laughs in Rose O’ the River

Nineteen-year-old Rose Wiley’s good looks, personality, and cooking attract young men for miles around.

Foremost among them is Stephen Waterman, who, as the story opens is about to propose to Rose a fourth time.

Rose O’ the River by Kate Douglas Wiggin

Illus: George Wright. Grosset & Dunlap, 1905. 177 pp. 1905 bestseller #1.
Project Gutenberg ebook #1033. My Grade: B-.

Believing she loves Steve as much as she could love anyone, Rose accepts his proposal.

Rose would, however, like an opportunity to see the world, especially Boston.

While Steve builds the cottage they will share, a salesman from Boston sweet-talks Rose. Rose doesn’t love Claude; she just thinks he loves her.

After seeing them together, Steve releases her from their engagement.

She had imagined that Stephen would be his large-minded, great-hearted, magnanimous self, and beg her to forget this fascinating will-o’the-wisp.

Rose quickly finds out she’s better off in York County, Maine, with Steve than in Boston with Claude.

Kate Douglas Wiggin’s plot has many threads that don’t go anywhere: Steve’s recklessness at log driving, his brother’s blindness, the two local boys who come home as doctors, for example.

Wiggin’s characterization, too, seems off base.

She makes Steve and Rose only passably believable, but makes Rose’s grandparents memorable.

In the end, it’s the novel’s humor rather than its love story, that sticks in the mind.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Time Out of Mind is an immersion in memory

Time Out of Mind is a fictional memoir penned by Kate Fernald,  a woman about 50.

Kate writes about what happened because her father forgot to take his jacket some 40 years before.

Time Out of Mind   by Rachel Field

MacMilllian, 1935. 462 pages. 1935 bestseller #4. My grade: A-.

After Kate’s father’s death, her mother became housekeeper for the Fortunes, a Maine shipbuilding family that refused to adapt to the age of steam.

Living on the premises, Kate was thrown together with the Fortune children, Rissa and Nat.Black type on red ground: Cover of "Time Out of Mind" by Rachel Field

Kate adored Nat, even risking Major Fortune’s displeasure to help Rissa arrange for Nat to play the piano, which their father had strictly forbidden in his attempt to make a man of his son.

When he discovered the children’s deliberate disobedience, the Major sent 11-year-old Nat to sea on the last vessel the Fortune Shipyard built.

Nat had to be carried off when the ship returned a year later.

From then on, enabling Nat to write and conduct music became the focus of Rissa’s life.

Rissa takes Nat abroad, returning only when she needs money. Nat returns because Maine is in his blood.

Kate asserts that chance rules life, but Rachel Field’s story shows clearly the role choice plays in events.

Field leaves nothing to chance in her management of the plot or her depiction of character.

Time Out of Mind is not just a book. It’s an immersion in memory.

 © Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mary Peters, Tender Novel with Backbone

Mary Ellen Chase’s novel Mary Peters is a hauntingly lovely tale of ordinary people who face life head on.

Mary Peters is not a great novel, but it’s a good novel.

It’s about giving your kids love and discipline.

It’s about compassion, about doing right just because it’s right, and about the futility of cursing the weather.

Maine Wild Rose
Maine Wild Rose

Born on a ship captained by her father in Singapore in 1871, Mary Peters’ home is the sea. When she is 16, her father’s ship sinks: Mary, her mother, Sarah, and brother, John, to go home to Petersport, Maine.

Sarah Peters welcomes Jim Pendleton, the charming bastard son of a man who jilted her years before, setting the town agog.

When Jim takes off, leaving Mary’s best friend to die giving birth to his child, Sarah counsels her children not to condemn him, but to take the long view and wait for things to change.

Mary and John wait.

Things get better, then worse, then better again.

The novel has the feel of 19th-century New England. Death, suffering, infidelity, poverty are treated as facts. These things happen. No one with backbone wallows in today’s misery.

Life goes on.

Wise men go on, too.

Mary Peters
By Mary Ellen Chase
Macmillan, 1934
377 pages
1934 bestseller list #8
My grade: C+

Photo credit: Maine Wild Rose by kklinzing

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

As the Earth Turns, it’s on axis of farm family

As The Earth Turns is a homely novel: a picture of a year in the life of a Maine farm family in the early years of the Great Depression.

The Shaws are a next-century version of the Ingalls and Wilder families profiled in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books: solid, hardworking, reliable.

Mark Shaw has farmed all his life; he doesn’t know or care to know any other place. His daughter Jen and three of his boys have a heart for farming. The others seek excitement off the land.

Since before her mother’s death ten years before Jen has run the house. She neither asks nor receives significant aid or interference from her father’s second wife.

Jen’s life is cooking, cleaning, and caring for others. She wants nothing else. She copes with life’s crises—a croupy baby or fatal accident—and the attentions of the handsome Polish immigrant farmer with equal calm.

Gladys Hasty Carroll relates the story with the dispassion of a visitor reading the family record scribbled on the calendar by the back door.

The Shaws would be great neighbors, but they aren’t particularly entertaining ones.

And reading about someone else doing housework is even less exciting than doing one’s own.

As the Earth Turns
by Gladys Hasty Carroll
MacMillan, 1933
339 pages
1933 bestseller #2

Windswept again

Portland Coastline
Coast of Maine next to Portland Headlight

Mary Ellen Chase’s novel Windswept, about the hardy folk of the Maine coast, took sixth place on the 1942 bestseller list after ranking in tenth place when it appeared the year before. My review of the novel is included with the 1941 bestsellers.

Photo credit: “Portland Coastline”  uploaded by Vanora

©2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Windswept is Barren and Boring

In September of 1938, two American tourists can watch a convoy of German military trucks carrying unsmiling young soldiers headed for maneuvers on the Rhine. Watching, each woman thinks of home.

On that ominous note, Mary Ellen Chase sets readers up to expect Windswept to be a passionate war story. Instead, Chase gives us a nice, dull book about nice, dull people.

The story begins when a man named Phillip Marston buys a chunk of Maine seacoast on which to build a home for himself and his son, John. He gets it cheap because nobody wants it.

When Phillip is killed in a hunting accident, John, aided by a Bohemian immigrant whom his father befriended, sees that the home is built. Jan Pisek is a second father to John and later to John’s children.

Three generations of Marstons call Windswept home. They revere Windswept the way Scarlett O’Hara reveres Tara. Whenever anything bad happens, they head for Windswept.

But Windswept is no Tara.

Among the entire Marston clan there’s not one memorable personality. Chase’s sea-gray characters meet every crisis with New England stoicism. These are practical people, with no passion for anything except Windswept itself.

If gray is your favorite color, you’ll love this novel.

Mary Ellen Chase
MacMillan 1941
440 pages
1941 # 10
My grade: C-
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Lovely Ambition Is a Lovely Novel

At the turn of the century, Wesleyan pastor John Tillyard, his wife and their  three children emigrate from their rural England home to Pepperell, Maine.  They bring little with them but their love, good sense,  and John’s copy of Walden.

John’s faith is primarily in the goodness of people, his religion not overly concerned with liturgy and theology. The Tillyards are just good people.

Thanks to the housekeeper who comes with the Methodist parsonage, the family settles into with relative ease. When John is given five dollars for a Memorial Day speech, Hilda insists her husband use it to visit Walden Pond.

On the trip, he meets the administrator of the state asylum and is invited to become its chaplain. John becomes convinced some of the residents are lonely rather than insane. He invites them to stay in the family home. Mrs. Gowan becomes a family and community favorite.

Mary Ellen Chase lets the family’s younger daughter narrate the story, which gives the novel the intimacy of memoir. The move from Old England to New England makes description of the two settings natural and vivid.

The result is a warm, homey novel as comfortable as overstuffed armchairs and flowered chintz.

The Lovely Ambition
By Mary Ellen Chase
W.W. Norton, 1960
288 pages
My grade A-
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni