January 26

Book review: ‘Pigs Can’t Swim,’ by Helen Peppe, a memoir of growing up in Maine

Much of the book is laugh-out-loud funny, but there are poignant, sad moments as well.

By Tom Atwell

When adults tell children that they are living the best days of their lives, it is only because the adults have placed a filter on their memories.


“PIGS CAN’T SWIM.” By Helen Peppe. De Capo Press. 272 pages. $22.99.

Childhood can be painful, depressing and tragic.

It also can be hilarious, as Helen Peppe shows in her childhood memoir, “Pigs Can’t Swim.”

The book tells the story of Peppe growing up in the 1970s as the youngest of nine children in a rural area somewhere near Auburn (City-of-the-Library), serving as the lookout for her older sisters as they smoked picked-up cigarette butts or spent time with boys at a local swimming hole or inside their home.

Peppe keep things a little vague. The names of most locations are descriptions. The same is true of her siblings, including Blustery-and-favored Brother, Sister-who-holds-grudges-longer-than-God, Hair-twirling-pretty-Sister, Tough-yet-admirable Sister and Sister-of-poor Choices.

The siblings, parents, family friends and communities in this book would not be pleased with their descriptions, which is probably why they are not named.

Helen is the oddball in this raucous family. She is a reader, spending most of her waking hours with her nose in a book, trying to ignore the chaos around her.

She is a lover of animals, especially horses, which she loves to ride and is willing to tend. She declares herself a vegetarian at a time when most people her age didn’t even know the meaning of the word. But she still takes part in the slaughter and preparation of the chickens and other animals that the family raises at the farm on a dead-end road.

Peppe takes the reader on an up-close tour of what life was like in rural parts of Maine a few decades ago. A lot of the descriptions were familiar – the poverty, the tightness of the community, the constant criticism of neighbors – from growing up a couple of decades earlier in rural western Maine. Her portrait of the life is wonderfully accurate.

The first three-quarters of this book is laugh-out-loud funny. Peppe keeps the young child’s thoughts and emotions alive in her descriptions of people and events, but her adult vision and wisdom is what molds the book.

The humor does not hide the depressing nature of how the family lives. Both of Helen’s parents love their children, but that love does not make them good parents. They neglect and berate Helen and her siblings, but do not themselves abuse them.

The humor is less outlandish in the last quarter of the book. Helen is approaching or in her teens, and the problems of the outside world seep into the insular world that she had created for herself, and those problems are larger.

Peppe still shows her humor in these difficult times, but the overall weight of events keep the laughs from bubbling up so easily.

Helen’s goal in life stated early in the book is to escape the family and become an author, and the fact that the reader is holding a copy of Helen’s book sort of gives away the ending: She succeeded.

As this is a childhood memoir, she skips her late teens and early adult years. I wanted to read more of how she escaped the strictures and difficulties of her childhood.

Perhaps there will be a sequel, and that is a book I would gladly read.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:


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