1946. Reprinted by Blackberry Books. Paperback. 377 pages.
For a short time in my childhood, my family lived practically down the road from Ruth Moore in Bass Harbor, Maine, though I don’t think I ever met her. Later, living in a different Maine town, the public library had many of Ruth Moore’s books, and I have a faint memory of reading a couple of her books as a teenager.
I picked up Spoonhandle at Sherman’s bookstore in Bar Harbor, Maine last summer, determined to get reacquainted. I decided to read it now as part of the Reading New England challenge hosted by Lory of Emerald City Book Review.
I assume other readers nourish the secret hope of coming across a neglected classic and becoming its champion to all who will listen. Well, I finished Spoonhandle this morning, and that seems to be what has happened here.
Spoonhandle is set in a small Maine island community during the mid-1930’s. The Stilwells are one of the central families on Big Spoon Island. Pete Stilwell owns the main grocery store but hopes to transform the island into a haven for “summer people”. A wealthy business owner has set his mind on purchasing Little Spoon Island, owned by Pete’s brother, Willie Stilwell. Flying in the face of Pete’s ambitions, Willie refuses to sell his land at any price. Throughout the novel, members of the community consider the price of transformation. Do they live independently, but in a hand-to-mouth existence? Or do they sell their land and take up better-paying jobs serving wealthy summer people?
In addition to this overarching story of the community, there is also a plotline about a boy in foster care looking to belong, and there is also a very nicely done romantic storyline between another Stilwell brother, Hod, and Ann Freeman, a young writer who has returned to the island after living in New York City.
In some ways, Moore’s writing reminds me of Anthony Trollope. Not exactly in style, but in her insights of human nature, and her handling of the complexities of human interaction. And like Trollope, she tucks her social critique into some good storytelling. (Unlike Trollope, however, she does not break the fourth wall or insert authorial asides.)
In Moore’s descriptions of Maine, however, I would link her more closely to Sarah Orne Jewett, another Maine-based author who wrote The Country of Pointed Firs in 1896. There is a fantastic set-piece at the end of Part I, where Willie and Hod Stilwell are out in their boat with the foster kid, Donny Mitchell, and they catch a large halibut.
Moore does not sentimentalize Maine coastal life. I was pleasantly surprised by her direct address of sexism and racism. Here is an excerpt taken from after Ann Freeman has had a brief interaction with Pete Stilwell:
Fog made a blurry outline of Pete’s store, as she passed it, and of the white, clapboarded house and barn belonging to Sam Grant, her father’s next-door neighbor. Under her feet, the road was sloppy with half-frozen mud and puddles.
I sure picked an attractive day to arrive home, she thought.
The fat man, with his cool, expert meddling in Hod’s affairs, the neat way in which, with three words, he had turned her into a silly interfering female, had made her angry – but something else, too. It had been a long time since she had encountered indifferent disregard of herself as a thinking human being, so long that she had almost forgotten how it felt.
I’d better begin to remember it, though, she said to herself wryly. I don’t expect pa’s changed much.
I found out online that Ruth Moore had worked for the NAACP for four years in the late 1920’s, a biographical detail that correlates with the socially aware undercurrent in her novel.
Ruth Moore apparently bristled at being called a “regional writer”; during the time of her career that was a term which had the effect of diminishing accomplishment and downplaying the universal themes present in her work. Indeed, Spoonhandle is dedicated “To Any American Town”. At the same time, she does do such a good job in capturing Maine and its people. So if you love Maine, that is an extra charm of the novel, but by no means do you need to be familiar with Maine to enjoy Spoonhandle.
After finishing the book, I came across a wonderful online essay by Jennifer Craig Pixley about Ruth Moore and her work, written in 1997. In it she writes:
What sets Moore apart from her contemporaries is her particular blend of humor, fury, and sorrow. Moore’s fiction and ballads reveal her comedic talents, but most readers understand that the other side of comedy is tragedy. Moore allows her readers to laugh, if only to keep our hearts from breaking at the spectacle of the human condition.
I hope that I’ve managed to intrigue some readers in Ruth Moore and in Spoonhandle in particular. It was a very satisfying read, and I hope to explore more of Moore’s work in the future.