When the “slumping down” of her 150-year-old cottage on Grand Manan could no longer be ignored, Alison Hawthorne Deming was faced with a practical question: to tear down or rehab. The question for her soon became a more philosophical one: to “unmake” or renew. She began to ponder the stories about the people who had lived there before her parents bought the house in 1957. Her decision: “I knew the house would not go down on my watch.”

From these Hamlet-like debates over the fate of a house, “A Woven World” evolves into a search for balance that honors the past as it seeks contemporary renewal. Deming need look no further than Grand Manan and the tools of its herring fishery that may be becoming a thing of the past.

Instead, and refreshingly, (I think of Deming, first and foremost, as an environmental writer), she starts her contemplative journey at the Costume Institute in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has gone to see Yves Saint Laurent’s “sardine dress” – inspired by a particularly sexy Rita Hayworth movie role. Having admired the technical artistry on display in its silk, its myriad sequins and meticulous stitching, she imbues the sardine dress with all the poetry of her nature-writing. “Long ripples rise and fall, rise and fall, like a disturbance on a calm bay, moon-work at play in a field of light.” It could be a description of a calm night off her beloved Grand Manan.

Again, rather than heading back to her island directly, she uses the dress to make an easy segue into a reminiscence of her maternal grandmother, Marie. She was a talented seamstress in New York City, carrying on the work and name of her own mother, who had been one of the Empress Eugenie’s dressmakers in Paris. And then, speaking of needlework, back to Grand Manan, where an old fisherman sits mending his nets. “Makers,” Deming muses. “Whose skill is so perfectly fit to the needs of the job, learned by watching and doing, patience and time.” And what will the fisherman use his nets to catch? Herring, which when canned, will become sardines.

It’s a fairly dizzying circle, more like a vortex. The centripetal force that tries to hold all this disparate material together is the story of five generations of women: from the author’s great-grandmother to her own daughter. The search for the histories of the first two flows into personal memoir, although by no means consecutively.

Deming is at her best in a perfect essay with the provocative title “Driving the Cadillac to Valhalla.” Valhalla, outside New York City, is where Marie, her grandmother, is buried in an unmarked grave. The chapter is a beautiful mix of in-the-moment observation, elegiac memory, and history, all culminating in restrained shock: “forty years after (Marie) had died in her bed in our family home,” Deming became the first person to visit her grandmother’s grave.


For the moment, the author shelves the question of why or how this should be and pursues her grandmother’s early life. A smudged and faded photograph taken in 1885 “is fitting for a story that resists being told.” She can only follow the “fragments.” These are sewn together with the social history of the times. One entire chapter consists of nothing but paragraphs excerpted from other writers (Simone de Beauvoir being the most famous) on women and fashion styles in Napoleon III’s France.

Deming’s most reliable clues are the addresses on old letterheads of her great-grandmother’s dressmaking enterprise as it was pushed up Manhattan by the ever-expanding city. Walking up the West Side, she finds address after address erased by later developments. Finally, she spots a man with a billboard advertising “SUBWAY Wow 10% OFF” and beneath it, the last address she’s looking for. Still standing, her great-grandmother’s house is now a Subway restaurant. It was “a Fellini movie in which I suddenly found myself.”

Besides this personal archeology, the author explores the weirs around Grand Manan and the stories of the fishermen. Herring biology and the history of the fishery take her as far afield as Iceland. The Herring Era Museum there is one of various museums that specialize in a variety of arcane subjects; the list includes a Phallological Museum. Deming loves lists. Beside museums, there are different kinds of stitch (14), “lost trades and goods” picked up on microfilm (over 30), and many more.

There is much that is fascinating in “A Woven World”; many of the stages of the author’s quest are beautifully framed. Occasional repetition from chapter to chapter suggests the book started off as a collection of essays. Perhaps this explains why, despite some elegant writing and the gravitational pull of the generational stories, its center ultimately does not quite hold.

Thomas Urquhart is the former executive director of Maine Audubon, and the author of recently published “Up for Grabs, Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: