The distinguished Maine historian Elizabeth Ring always argued that history consists of the elements of people, place, time and spirit. It is in this fashion that Joseph A. Conforti proceeds in “Hidden Places: Maine Writers on Coastal Villages, Mill Towns, and the North Country.” Conforti is deeply versed in regional history and literature — it is hard to think of a more qualified individual to take on this task.

Cover courtesy of Down East Books

Near the outset the author boasts of the size and varied nature of Maine and argues for a special place in American fiction beyond the mere parochial or local color. “Maine-born and Maine-based writers have created a rich body of work about the Pine Tree State as a place,” he writes.

He explains that he has excluded poetry, as well as the books of Stephen King, “whose work in its enormity serves as a kind of literary analog to Maine’s vastness,” for lack of space. Instead, this important fresh volume focuses on 11 Maine novelists ranging from Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) to such bright contemporaries as Richard Russo and Monica Wood. Conforti is an appealing writer, and he makes good choices in a relatively small space. He clearly enjoys the works of each novelist and argues their critical reception over time. What could be a dull recitation is instead fun to read, amusing to engage with and informative.

The book is divided into four parts. Conforti starts with “Coast and Islands,” where he considers the novels of Jewett (Coastal Communities of Women), Mary Ellen Chase (A Goodly Heritage and Down East’s Upheaval) and Ruth Moore (Island Villages and the Struggle for Survival). Part 2 covers Ben Ames Williams, Elizabeth Coatsworth and Cathie Pelletier (From Bangor to the Border: Three Writers of the North Country). He proceeds to Gerard Robichaud and Elizabeth Strout, (Ethnicity and the Mill City), and Carolyn Chute’s (The Backcountry as Maine’s Appalachia), and ends with Russo and Wood (The Mill Town in Turmoil).

In terms of terrain, topography and people of all classes, races and genders over time, “Hidden Places,” covers the bases, but Portland — urban Maine — is not represented; Conforti makes his case for that choice. Indeed, in the hand of some writers, such as Carolyn Chute, Portland is exploited as the “anti-Maine.” The big city has yet to produce a master novelist, I’d agree, and that leaves a large literary gap.

Conforti is steeped in his subject. Writing about Wood, for instance, he notes she “takes pride in her background as the daughter of a working class family from a blue-collar town. One can’t classify Ernie’s Ark as a protest novel. Rather, as she had described her focus, ‘the book is not about the political ramifications of a strike; it is about life behind and beyond and between and inside the strike.’ In one of the finest chapters in Ernie’s Ark, Wood shifts the point of view to first person singular. She skillfully portrays the CEO of the Atlantic Pulp and Paper Company to articulate how he is whipsawed between competing pressures and not a one-dimensional enemy of labor.”

Readers can, and probably will, argue that other first-rate novelists are missing from “Hidden Places.” Kenneth Roberts, for one, might have served to represent historical novelists in the book; on the other hand, Ben Ames Williams fixed pre-Civil War Bangor and its colorful archetypes in a way no one else has before or since. As for the works of Ruth Moore and Mary Ellen Chase, I don’t believe there could be a better juxtaposition. Coatsworth’s “The Enchanted” —  perhaps the one true Maine fable — is inspired and bridges actual place and unique imagination.

I’d already read most of the works Conforti discusses in “Hidden Places” and found the book both delightful and an important contribution to understanding Maine’s literature and its place in American and world letters. The book made me realize what a what a sizable and enduring impact women writers have made in the state and what privilege it is to have lived and worked here during the lifetimes of such splendid writers.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History,” He is at work on a history of the Maine Historical Society. He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.


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