On the front cover of Monica Wood’s latest book, an endorsement likens the author to Pulitzer Prize-winner Elizabeth Strout – high praise, to be sure, and worrisome for that very reason. Too often, such blurbs fail to deliver. But thankfully, this comparison is right on the money.

Cover courtesy of Godine

Wood’s newly reissued title, “Ernie’s Ark: The Abbott Falls Stories,” is indeed akin to Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge” in style, structure and rural leanings. Both are collections of linked stories about small-town Maine that are also decidedly novels. Arriving nearly two decades after its first publication, and with an additional story, “Ernie’s Ark” is no less timely or pertinent today. The book feels totally fresh, its insights profound and universal.

“Ernie’s Ark” is the story of Abbott Falls; of the local paper mill whose workers are on strike; and of the extended families whose lives revolve around the mill and each other. The ark of the book’s title is indeed a vessel of eye-popping scale – sufficiently large that it serves not only as a conversation piece, but as a character in its own right. If your neighbor were noisily building a boat-like structure in his backyard, you might take note. As does the town’s building inspector, who demands that Ernie get a building permit, or tear the thing down.

When we first meet Ernie Whitten, a pipe fitter at the mill, barely a month from retirement, we’re witnessing the final weeks of a love story. Ernie’s wife of 45 years, Marie, is dying of cancer. Ernie has just brought her home from the hospital and is attending to her comfort. His ark-building project, which began as an entry in a local college contest, quickly becomes a balm for them both. Marie loves watching him build this oddity; Ernie feeds on her watchfulness. The ark becomes a testament to the sturdiness of their marriage.

Says Wood, “He’d swaddled his dying wife on the sunporch so she could watch him prove he was a man who could still see the possibility in a blank board.”

The narrative unfolds in 10 chapters, each its own short story, portraying a different member of neighboring clans. They’re a motley crew of townies and defectors, of loyalists and scabs, their lives intertwined with that of the mill, and now re-connected by the loss of one of their own. In other words, these are ordinary folks going about their lives, dealing with the familiar anguish of job loss, of illness, of families being torn apart. And, yet, this is also a feel-good book, anchored by a sense of decency. In this fictional world, there’s right and wrong, and redemption is offered to those who seek it.

What sets this book apart is both its use of language and the humanity of its characters. Wood is a plainspoken writer who opts for directness and simplicity over razzle-dazzle. There’s nothing flashy here, just the jolt of recognition, of landing on a phrase or sentence that disarms or re-directs.

Describing the mill, Wood writes, “Under the darkening sky, the mill looked like a ruined picnic, a sorry brick blanket at the deep center of the valley.”

Of the ark, she says, “The ark was a mystery that only after (Marie’s) passing (Ernie) recognized as a monument to her, a vessel that contained her final weeks, which had been filled with entertainment and unseasonable weather and the joyful ping of hammer on nail.”

Wood, who lives in Portland, has created characters that readers will be hard-pressed to forget – among them, Ernie and Marie; the local florist, Cindy, with tricks up her sleeve; and a canny, awkward teenager, Francine, who, having been abandoned by her mother, shops for a replacement. By book’s end, many readers will have slowed down, unready to part with the inhabitants of this singular, hopeful, workaday town.

In an Afterword, we learn that the author loved the process of writing this book, and all that flowed from it. Back in 2002, “Ernie’s Ark” attracted readers and critics alike; paved the way for a memoir and a play; and eventually went out of print. Its re-issue in 2020 gives a new generation of readers the chance to visit Abbott Falls, a place where the old verities still apply.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her book of linked essays, “Someday This Will Fit,” was recently released by Bauhan Publishing.


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