Those who enjoyed Ingrid Grenon’s previous volume, “Lost Maine Coastal Schooners: From Glory Days to Ghost Ships” will be generally pleased by her latest entry, “Down East Schooners and Shipmasters,” which is propelled by the same nostalgic passions and interests.
The new adventure finds the Maine-born Grenon aboard the Maine-built schooner Lewis R. French, now a working tourist vessel and historic landmark. Where in the past the author researched and mused over a vanished age and her great-great-great grandfather, Capt. William Peachey of Mount Desert, she now takes the opportunity to sample passage in an actual 1871 vessel:
“As the ocean tossed the ship back and forth, I could hear the seas washing up against the wooden hull beside my berth on the schooner,” she writes.
“It might sound strange, but I found the swaying back and forth of the ship comforting, as if Mother Nature were rocking the cradle. I was thankful that Captain (Garth) Wells had decided to take advantage of a brisk evening wind and sail at night. Although it was August, it was after dark and I was glad to have a woolen blanket to safeguard against the evening chill.”
There are some glorious images of the trip, matched by color illustrations of objects and a nice collection of black-and-white photographs.
Grenon then turns her narrative in a direction that rather startled this reviewer. She delivers a history of the whole Mount Desert region, not just stories of schooners and shipmasters as the title states. Writers are free to and encouraged to pursue all subjects, but this seemed a bit of a jump.
Grenon does gives explanation in her introduction: “There have been many histories published related to Mount Desert Island, but the histories of the town of Hancock are relatively scant. Many of the stories I have chosen to place in this history aren’t well known, and that is why I selected them.”
The question must be asked: Was the reader looking for a history of Hancock? The title does not suggest this port or any nonmaritime history of Maine.
Following the opening chapter, “A Traveler in Time” (aboard the Lewis R. French), are 10 essays on subjects including early Maine visitors, Jesuits, the Mount Desert Ferry and the Bar Harbor Express, the Foss family of seafarers, a fortune in guano and the last log of the schooner Edna Hoyt, as well as the Hancock history.
Grenon is in love with the past, and she wants to share her passion with the reader. On page 13, she claims this book is unique, containing information not found in any other account of the region. “In addition, it focuses on the strong blood ties the people of coastal Maine have with the sea that still bind — unbelievably — into the present day,” she writes.
“Unique” is a strong word not easily defended, and a look at the book’s bibliography and image credits tell most of the story. Aside from a few images from the author, most are from known institutions and, it seems to this reader, so is the bulk of the research. The books and websites listed are solid, but do not list or make use of current (and key) Mount Desert historians, including Harald E.L. Prins and Bunny McBride.
General readers may indeed enjoy this volume, which is at heart more a series of researched meditations on Maine schooners and shipmasters.
They should know too that they will be presented with a mini-history of the Down East region from 1524 to the loss of the Edna Hoyt in 1937.
William David Barry is a Portland historian who has authored or co-authored several books, including “Maine: The Wilder Half of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.