William David Barry’s “Maine: The Wilder Half Of New England” is comprehensive in breadth. The book is so full of detail, it seems that Barry erred on the side of including every fact, event and personality rather than risk leaving something out.

It’s not a book to be read in one or two sittings. There’s simply too much to ingest.

Native Americans figure into it, but the focus of the early chapters is primarily Euro-centric, starting with the push in the late 1500s to find a convenient “northwest passage” to India.

Early exploration and settlement is cast in context of the great historical movements in Europe: European nation-states were just emerging from the Middle Ages, Michelangelo was in mid-career, Luther had sparked the Reformation, and the Spanish and Portuguese were laying claim to territory around the world.

A Maine author and historian, Barry marches his story through the ensuing tumult of the centuries, from Maine being a colony of a colony (Massachusetts) to the struggle for statehood and securing a national identity, right up to the growth of Maine’s Muslim community and the current governor telling the NAACP what part of his anatomy it can kiss.

The book is filled with maps; portraits; artistic drawings of historical places, people and events; and black-and-white photographs. Upon finishing the book, the lay reader will never again be able to view Maine through a simple prism that spotlights only the well-known peaks of history. Barry has well scoured numerous sources to capture both the sweep of history and the miasma of telling details. There are delightful, small surprises aplenty.

Did you know, for example, that Maine’s wildness was viewed by the early colonies as a “convenient buffer zone between the larger, more viable colonies in Massachusetts and Quebec,” a kind of hinterland tempering hostile engagements?

That Portland (then Falmouth) was for a time the greatest export point for ships’ masts in North America? Or that a man-of-war vessel built in Kittery and captained by John Paul Jones was the first to fly the new American flag?

Surprisingly, a naval battle with the British in 1779 near Castine “was the worst American naval defeat until Pearl Harbor.” And the vote to ratify the Constitution was “probably tipped” toward approval by the vote in Cumberland County. Later, statehood was granted in 1820 in part by Federalists in Massachusetts eager to “rid themselves of (the) Jeffersonian rabble” in Maine.

For a time, Bangor was the lumber capital of the world and second largest port in Maine. The sailing ship Red Jacket, launched in Rockland in 1853, has the distinction of still holding the record for fastest crossing from New York to Liverpool by such a vessel. And John Wilkes Booth was performing on stage in Portland when Fort Sumter was bombarded. Curiously, Maine “gave birth to more Confederate generals than did Texas.”

Did you know that the Bath-built merchant vessel William P. Frye was the first U.S. ship to be sunk by Germans in the run-up to World War I? Or that FDR announced in Maine in August 1941 the “Atlantic Charter” accord with Winston Churchill? The agreement signaled America’s standing as a global power, made the U.S. a clear enemy of the Axis powers and was a bellwether for the founding of the United Nations.

There was perhaps no finer moment in Maine’s history than when Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith gave her courageous “Declaration of Conscience” speech in Congress, “decrying the excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt,” insisting in that same speech “on the rights of all to criticize, to hold unpopular beliefs, to protest, and to think independently.”

Maine is known for many things — chief among them being home to independent thinkers. You’ll find the known, the unknown and the obscure in Barry’s new history of Maine. No doubt it will long stand as a seminal source for anyone interested in learning more about the state.

Frank O Smith is a writer and teacher. He can be reached at:

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