There are well-written books of Maine-based fiction appearing with ever increasing frequency. This is no doubt due to the growing number of college and work-shop trained authors and the fact that the novel is no longer “novel” in form but the “standard.” In the days of experiment most long works of fiction proved either popular but highly perishable works of the moment (largely unreadable today) or literary ruins, including Henry Longfellow’s only novel, “Kavanagh” (1849). Had the name Longfellow not been present, the work would be completely forgotten.
This brings us to “The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay,” which is a standout in an era crowded with first-rate volumes, and is likely to be read for decades to come, if it at least finds a readership and isn’t shuttled to the literary sidelines. Westbrook’s Beverly Jensen (1953-2003), died with a small but rich literary output gathered up by family and friends. bringing her novel of the lives of New Brunswick’s Hillock sisters, Della and Avis, to print, her adherents have done us all a great favor.
Writing a novel that follows a character or characters from childhood to the grave takes an incredible self-confidence, unless you’re just tossing off a soaper. Believe this reviewer, soap is a hard commodity to come by in 1916 in New Brunswick along the Bay of Chaleur. The story unfolds in the farmstead of Bill Hillock, his wife, two daughters and son. It is a relatively happy scene, a poor family with a strict, no-nonsense father and a loving, moderating mother. In the blink of an eye the mother dies giving birth to another daughter and setting up patterns and tensions that reverberate in large and subtle ways. The characters throughout the saga are wonderful — they grow before your eyes as they are pulled south, by family and economic reasons, to Boston, Scarborough and other Maine locales.
There is always the counter-tug toward home and decidedly ambivalent feelings. Though described as “darkly comic” this is not like the bitter, tooth-cracking humor of Flannery O’Connor that has pervaded so much of American and Maine fiction. It is a more developed, more empathetic and satisfying style reminiscent perhaps of E. Annie Proulx, but certainly not imitative. Beverly Jensen’s writing generates fully dimensional figures whose interrelationships are equally complex and believable.
The story, which could be carried on the merits of the very real 20th century “left my home in the Maritimes” framework, is kept firm and lively by the sisters’ adventures and their past (which slowly reveals itself). Indeed, neither Avis nor Idella know the full story, until after the remarkable storm, wake and funeral of Wild Bill Hillock. Before that there is the robbery at Prescott Mill, possibly the funniest, scariest and best resolved chapter-story that I can recall.
What we have are lives being lived, being played out, not by leaders on the grand stage, but by ordinary people. Some are thoughtful, and some are not, but they are people that the writer makes the reader care about. They are us, or part of what makes this patch of the world human.
Should the reader care for an unvarnished nonfiction companion volume (and one that Beverly Jensen was probably unaware of), read Olive P. Lord’s “True Experiences: Including Adam and Eve in the Woods.” (Portland: A Dirigo Edition, 1958.)
Mrs. Lord (nee Estes) came to Boston and Pownal in roughly the same period and tells her story as if she were dishing out mashed potatoes. It is direct, charming and un-self-conscious. Jensen is far more aware of time, place and subtlety but her characters never become intellectuals or stick-figure bumpkins. Like Olive Lord, they are what they are without apology, but able to sometimes forgive and get on with things.
“The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay” is a novel of national scope and importance but is also a Maine treasure. Any thoughts to expanding or creating a new “Mirror of Maine: One Hundred Books that Reveal the History of the State of Maine and the Life of its People” (Orono: UMO-Baxter Society 2000) ought to take this volume into serious consideration.
Local historian William David Barry has authored/co-authored books including “Tate House: Crown of the Maine Mast Trade.” He lives in Portland.