Maine readers are lucky. We have excellent women writers right in our own back yard. Lily King, Elizabeth Strout, Monica Wood and Julia Spencer-Fleming, to name a just a few, put Maine on the latest literary map.
But while you’re busy checking their bestsellers to your to-read list, you’d be wise to go back a few years and check out some of Maine’s other great female authors you might have missed.
Cathie Pelletier strikes a perfect balance between quirky and authentic in her Mattagash trilogy, among my favorite reads of all time. Set in the fictional town of Mattagash, which is located in the very real Aroostook County (also known as The County, where Pelletier is from and lives today), the three novels sharply and cleverly depict the idiosyncratic residents; their bickering; their love stories, both good and troubled; their unfulfilled dreams and the life-changing choices they make. They’re not caricatures of “Mainuhs,” and while they could be from any small, isolated town where everybody knows everybody else’s business, Pelletier captures their Maine-ness with respect.
With “The Funeral Makers” (1986), Pelletier introduces us to three sisters – one is on her deathbed, one fled Mattagash to live in urban Portland and the other remained. In “Once Upon a Time on the Banks” (1989), the daughter of the sister who stayed decides to marry “an outsider,” throwing the family into tumult. “The Weight of Winter” (1992) finds residents struggling with their livelihoods and ever-present family dysfunction. Mathilda, 107, spends her time looking back at the town, founded in the year of her birth, and
its people’s squelched hopes and spunk. The trilogy can be heartbreaking, but it’s also hilarious. Mother-daughter love-hate relationships figure prominently, as do years-long female friendships.
“Octavia’s Hill” (1983) and “Maddy’s Song” (1985) by Margaret Dickson are stories of strong women who endure one tragedy after another. The first is about an unhappy wife and mother who revisits the lives of her grandmother, mother and herself while she’s in her cellar, waiting out a nuclear accident. “Maddy’s Song,” too, is about overcoming a restrictive life, but this time it’s a teenager who finds freedom in her music.
May Sarton was prolific. Starting in the 1930s, she published 20 novels, 17 volumes of poetry, 13 works of nonfiction and two children’s books. A memoir, “Journal of a Solitude” (1973), advocates for time alone to reflect “on what is happening or what has happened” in a woman’s life. She tackles unresolved anger and pain and lauds a garden as therapy. In the novel “The Education of Harriet Hatfield” (1989), the title character decides to open a women’s bookstore after her longtime partner dies. A proper Boston lady, she is shocked when her shop is deemed a lesbian bookstore and causes a ruckus in the neighborhood. Sarton was among the first women to write openly about her own sexuality and that of her lesbian characters.
MARY ELLEN CHASE
Going back further in the stacks, there’s the wonderful Mary Ellen Chase. Set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, her novels, bestsellers in the 1930s, are intelligent and masterfully told. They over up a captivating look at Maine during seafaring days, the switch from sails to steam and the early influx of summer people. And, to top it all o , they’re relationship juicy. In “Mary Peters” (1934), the indomitable Mary returns to her hometown to find it has drastically changed. “Silas Crockett” (1935) is a 100-year epic about four generations of a Maine family, and “Windswept” (1941) is about a Down East home that becomes a touchstone for a family through the years.
Don’t stop there. There are many great reads by Maine women to be enjoyed.
Amy Canfield loves to read. She has been a book editor, a book reviewer for publications nationwide and is an editor at Current Publishing. She lives in South Portland.