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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Summer’s-End Wanderlust

The goldenrod is blooming and the first bright yellow popple leaves shivering in the wind. Sun and grey clouds alternate, and fall is in the air. My associations with this season are all positive, no longer the excitement of going back to school but now the just-as-welcome (after a busy summer) relief of a little slow-down in activity and maybe a little getaway before too many more weeks have passed. At summer’s end I feel the allure of the open road, the call of the Upper Peninsula, and the temptation of untried two-tracks. No reservations, no set destination. That’s the direction—or rather, lack of direction--my reading takes, also.

Titles in my “Books Read” lists appear in reverse chronological order, blog post style, according to when I finished the books, the one at the top being the last one finished. That apparently rigid order can be misleading, however, in that I’m often reading more than one book at a time, sometimes going back and forth between two books, other times jumping among as many as five. Books I’ve started are spotted around in different rooms of the house, in cars, in tote bags and/or on the bookstore counter. Some are new, and some are very old. There is fiction and nonfiction, and there are popular titles along with the obscure. My only rule is that a book can’t go on the list until I’ve reached the last page.

Every now and then I make a “discovery,” and one of this summer’s discoveries of a 20th-century author new to me has been Ruth Moore. I’d never heard of her but acquired several titles for the store and finally, out of curiosity, began reading one. Moore never named the state that provided her novel’s setting, but the place, a rocky, offshore Atlantic coast island, was described in vivid detail.
The island was all granite, its peak a round hill a hundred feet high and naked as a cup. What grew there, grew where the land leveled out at the base of the hill, a wild tangle of northern coastal forest, on roots driven into the crevices of rock. Through centuries, it had made topsoil, deep enough on the island’s western end to grow a little grass, and on that side, too, a half-mile back from the shore, just before the hill started to climb, was a small, deep pond in an alder swamp of almost tropical lushness.

Reading the description of the island, I couldn’t wait to go there and spent days ducking in and out of that faraway world. Finally, after reaching the end of the novel (which seemed abrupt, despite the length of the story), I did a little investigation into the author, and that made fascinating reading, too. The most thorough story of Moore’s life is an essay called “Homesick for That Place: Ruth Moore Writes About Maine,” by Jennifer Craig Pixley. You can read Pixley’s essay in its entirety here. Her title takes its name from the epigram prefacing Moore’s first novel, The Weir: “That was the place you were homesick for, even when you were there," which in turn reminds me of the French phrase “nostalgia for the present.” We feel that when the moment is so full that we can’t help realizing it is slipping away while we are in it, never to return again.

Moore grew up on Gott’s Island, and Pixley says that the Maine coast was the only place the author ever loved, “the only place for which she was ever homesick.” Not being able to make a permanent life on the island was her sorrow, and yet as Pixley reflects on Moore’s “unconventional attitudes” and “liberal ideas,” she can’t help wondering “what it's like to be homesick for a place in which you have no place, or in which you don't want the place you have.” This, it seems to me, is the situation of Miss Greenwood, one of the characters in Speak to the Winds. Like Ruth Moore, Miss Greenwood has never married. Also like Moore, she has made a close study of the natural world: In one passage of the novel, Miss Greenwood finds her way home in a storm by recognizing the patterns of specific patches of lichens on the rocks. But--
Miss Greenwood wasn’t anybody you could think of loving, being fond of, like other people. Such a thing would never enter your head. She was here, had been here since Joyce could remember—a part of the things at the island; a wonder for living where she did in this lonesome place; a nuisance to the grownups who had to check up every so often, see she was all right; somebody to show off poking fun at, because she looked strange and different from other people. There were the Parties, of course, everybody loved them. But Miss Greenwood herself—

You couldn’t talk to her, like to the people you knew. Oh, if you met her on the Point road, or maybe dropped by at the house....

But to talk to her—it was exactly as if Miss Greenwood had a phonograph record she played with her voice.... It wasn’t very interesting....

There are parts of island life, whether in the novel I read or in Pixley’s biographical essay, that remind me very much of little Northport and other villages in Leelanau County. Once self-sufficient—the fictional Maine island through mining of granite, our own area with fishing and agriculture—summer cottages now ring the coast, while the year-round population has shrunk. Old families now make ends meet by working for summer people.
Elbridge didn’t see how any economy could possibly be healthy, or ever return to prosperity, in a place where two-thirds of the taxable property was owned by people who didn’t use it for nine months out of the year. At the same time, he didn’t see what else could be done. Without the fat taxes the summer people paid, and without the jobs they offered in the summer, the island would be done for.

It’s fiction, set back in time and far from home, and yet it hits close to home, too. Do all roads lead home again?

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