Shonna Milliken Humphrey grew up in Aroostook County without a writer for a role model.

When she was 11, she signed up for a writing workshop for smart kids. It was then, for the first time, she thought to herself, “Maybe I can do this.”

Now, at age 37, she has written her first novel. This week, Down East publishes “Show Me Good Land,” Humphrey’s fictional story of a small rural town struggling with poverty and loss. Down East describes the novel as a modern-day take on John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row,” and the first Maine book since Carolyn Chute’s “The Beans of Egypt, Maine” with a cast of characters “so shocking, beautifully rendered, and ultimately likeable.”

Humphrey, who lives in Gorham, will discuss her novel on Saturday at the Maine Festival of the Book in Portland. She is on a panel with another Maine writer, Hannah Holmes. Together, they will talk about the fine line between fiction and nonfiction. A week from today, on April 3, she hosts her official book-launch party at The Danforth in Portland.

In an interview, Humphrey said the novel stems from her experience in Aroostook County. She grew up poor, picked potatoes when she was way too young to work, and spent a lot of time thinking about how to improve her life.

“Potato picking was awful,” she said. “I didn’t last very long. I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t like it. Any job I do now, I compare to working in the potato fields. It will never, ever be that bad.”

She was 9 or 10, and would go into the fields in the morning when it was dark and work through the day and into the evening. She asked herself, “Is this going to be my life?”

That’s why that writing workshop for smart kids felt meaningful to her. She realized there might be something other than potatoes in her future, and that writing might hold the answer.

Since that moment of enlightenment, Humphrey has remained focused on her life goal. “Show Me Good Land” represents not the culmination of her dream, but affirmation that she made the right decision. She views this novel as an important step along the way.

There have been many steps prior to the publication of this book.

Humphrey enrolled at the University of Southern Maine in the early 1990s, and later earned her master’s in writing and literature from Bennington College in Vermont.

Humphrey, who is married to country singer Travis James Humphrey, worked at a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., for a time, then came home to Maine for a job that ultimately led to her becoming director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance.

She loved that job, and enjoyed helping other writers advance their careers. During a writing retreat at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, she realized that she wanted to spend her energy doing her own writing. “I wanted to be an artist. I did not want to be an administrator,” she recalled.

She left the job to craft her own vision.

At first, she thought about writing her book as nonfiction. In fact, it began as a nonfiction essay. But she abandoned the idea of a nonfiction book for many reasons, including the freedom that fiction writing allowed. Her book is not autobiographical, though readers may assume as much. It is based on things she experienced in the fields and things she observed, but it is not a story of her life.

Humphrey is currently working on her second book, an account of the Russian mail-order bride industry.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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