June 30, 2013

Home is where the art is for Cathie Pelletier

The author has come back to her roots in far-northern Maine to live ... and write.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

ALLAGASH — Cathie Pelletier's invitation to a downstate visitor comes with a warning: "I just came in from picking wild violets on the mountain. I should remind you: The state bird up here is the BLACKFLY."

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Cathie Pelletier rides on the St. John River in a canoe piloted by her brother, Vernon.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Cathie Pelletier stops to smell the flowers with Darlene Kelly Dumond, a childhood friend.

Additional Photos Below

Welcome to the north Maine wilderness, where author, humorist and all-around rusticator Cathie Pelletier has come home.

A best-selling author and modestly successful songwriter, Pelletier, 60, has returned to the banks of the St. John River at the very top of northern Maine. The last paved road in the state ends a few miles from her house.

Otherwise, it's all woods and water.

And black flies.

After spending most of her life in the South, Pelletier returned to Allagash four years ago with her husband to care for her elderly father, a lifelong lumberjack who, at 93, remains quite lively.

Her latest novel, "The One-Way Bridge," brings readers back to fictional Mattagash, the last town in the middle of northern Maine where a single-lane bridge divides and unites the folks who live there.

With its quirky people, petty feuds and acts of everyday heroism, "The One-Way Bridge" is not-so-loosely based on Allagash. Pelletier got the idea for the book in the 1991, when she saw a national news broadcast of Allagash's one-way bridge washing out in high water.

The state replaced the bridge with a modern two-laner, and one way or another, Pelletier has been writing the story ever since.

This is her fifth Mattagash novel, and the first since 2005's "Running the Bulls." The first was "The Funeral Makers" in 1986.

It doesn't matter that she began the book in Nashville and wrote much of it while living briefly in Canada. This is a Maine book to the core.

"Eudora Welty said, 'We write out of the first 10 years of our lives,' and I think that's true," Pelletier said, seated on the deck of the house her father built, a sprawling place with big columns snug between the road and the river. "I'm back in the house that I was born in and the house my mother died in."

Pelletier came home for another reason: This is where her soul lives, and where she hopes and expects it will live forevermore.

"If I have a choice of where to die, I'd like to die here too," she said.

It seems that this time, she'll stay.

Pelletier left Allagash at age 16 for college just up the road in Fort Kent. But college didn't suit her. The University of Maine at Fort Kent booted her for reasons of discipline that she'd rather not discuss.

Restless and bored, she hitchhiked 10,000 miles across 43 states, came home three months later and eventually finished college. 

SOUTH AND BACK AGAIN

In a family that boasts seven generations of loggers, Pelletier was a first-generation writer. She left the woods and rivers, moved to Nashville and took up with a country singer.

Along the way, she became one of America's most-loved and best-read authors while also enjoying a modestly successful career as a songwriter. The Texas Tornados had a minor hit with "Who Were You Thinkin' Of?" in 1990; The Glaser Brothers recorded her "Happy Hour Blues."

Pelletier lived in Tennessee for 30 years, much longer than she's lived anywhere. After spending a few years in Canada, she and her husband, Tom Viorikic, settled in Allagash four years ago.

"In the writer's world, they say you can never go home," Viorikic said. "But she did. It was the right move. Now it's going to be hard to get her away from here."

Pelletier is much acclaimed. Her third novel, "The Weight of Winter" (1991), won the New England Booksellers Award. "Running the Bulls" won the Paterson Prize for Fiction. She's received million-dollar advances, and has been profiled in People magazine.

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Additional Photos

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Cathie Pelletier and her brother, Vernon, come ashore on the bank of the St. John River.

Gabe Souza

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The house where Cathie Pelletier was born and her mother died – and where she now lives with her husband and her 93-year-old father.

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With the Allagash River in the background, Cathie Pelletier poses near her ancestral home in Allagash.

Gabe Souza



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