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New England favorites with a sense of place

By Katharine Whittemore
Globe Correspondent / August 7, 2011

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I’m an immersive sort of traveler, the type who reads books set where I wash up. That was me, the backpacking college cliché, lost in Mary McCarthy’s “Venice Observed’’ in the watercolor light of Saint Mark’s Square. And that was me, reporting from North Dakota, undone by Ole Rölvaag’s “Giants of the Earth.’’ It’s a kind of double raptness: To feel alive to a place as you gaze up from a book - and fall back into its pages. If you’re vacationing hereabouts this month, put down “The Help’’ or “Unbroken,’’ and try reading for place instead.

Maine Start with a classic, Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Country of the Pointed Firs,’’ first published in 1896, which Henry James called her “beautiful little quantum of achievement.’’ Rudyard Kipling one-upped him: “Immense,’’ he exclaimed. Immense or quantum, Jewett’s plainsong sketches of Mainers living by “the rocky shore and the dark woods’’ still shine.

Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge’’ also tenders sad, sharp sketches of Mainers, with the truculent Olive and her kind, beset husband Henry at center stage, living in an old house “lilied with light.’’

As the old joke goes, Maine has two seasons: winter and the Fourth of July. So telemark into the blizzardy “Water Dogs’’ by Lewis Robinson, in which three twentysomething siblings brave one Maine winter: a frosty paintball game, hanging out in a fictional Franco-American mill town, and a touch of hypothermia.

This regional deprivation colors Maine’s nonfiction, too, as in the engaging enviro-history “The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier.’’ Down East native Colin Woodard explains how the state’s climate led to its semicolonial relationship to outside interests (lumber companies, summer people). He lights on good topics. There’s the unwelcome 1524 explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who spitefully calls Maine Terra Ondedi Mala Gente (The Land of the Bad People), the 1820 split from Massachusetts, and Monhegan Island as quasi utopia. The Way Life Should Be, indeed.

New Hampshire Read Christopher Johnson’s “This Grand and Magnificent Place: The Wilderness Heritage of the White Mountains’’ next time you hike hut to hut. It smartly chronicles the days of the Abenaki on up to besotted artists like Thomas Cole and writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Anthony Trollope - who famously said the Whites were “superior’’ in scenery to European mountains.

Then slope down to Donald Hall’s lapidary “String Too Short to Be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm.’’ His wife, the late poet Jane Kenyon, also wrote from New Hampshire. I savor her “Let Evening Come’’ - “Let the light of late afternoon shine through chinks in the barn/moving up the bales as the sun moves down.’’

The best New Hampshire novel is a tossup. I like Ernest Hebert’s “The Dogs of March,’’ the first in his nicely bleak series about native-newcomer clashes in fictional Darby, N.H. Antihero Howard Elman had me at hello; happily noting his yard of “birches, a score of junk cars, a swing on a limb of a giant maple . . . a house sided with fading purple asphalt shingles.’’ But there’s also Russell Banks’s pounding “Affliction,’’ a sins-of-the-father story about a divorced, small-town cop/snowplow operator who can’t shuck the hard sorrows of his childhood.

Vermont All Mosher, I say, all the time. Howard Frank Mosher is the state’s William Faulkner, and go ahead, do a read-a-thon under the North Hero or Greensboro sky. Start with “Where the Rivers Flow North,’’ a half-dozen stories set in the 1920s and full of lumberjacks, farmers, and odd-jobbers. His style has been described as Ernest Hemingway meets Jim Harrison. Whatever, it’s lovely: “The sky was darker and the air smelled like imminent snow. He put the canoe in the dead water . . .’’

On to Jay Parini’s so fine “Robert Frost: A Life,’’ a revisionist take on the bilious Frost, sympathetically tracing his family legacy of clinical depression. True, the poet belongs as much to New Hampshire as Vermont. What matters is that this San Francisco native was, as Robert Penn Warren said, “perpetually stunned by what he saw’’ throughout northern New England. Whose woods these are? I think I know.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who lived in Arlington, Vt., was a friend of the Frosts, and if her 1924 bestseller “The Home Maker’’ came out now, it would be an Oprah pick; Carol Shields called it “remarkable and brave.’’ The story follows an overwhelmed mother who, every minute, is forced into “closeness of contact with the raw unfinished personalities of the children, from which her own ripe maturity recoiled in ever-renewed impatience.’’ After her husband has an accident, she joins the workforce. He stays with the kids. Things get interesting.

Massachusetts While stuck on the Bourne or Sagamore, crack any of the winning, naturalist works of David Gessner. I’m most drawn to “The Prophet of Dry Hill: Lessons from a Life in Nature,’’ in which he shadows Brewster’s own illustrious naturalist John Hay, then in his mid-80s, ardently tramping to and past the wrack lines of Cape Cod. As Hay says, “Exaltation takes practice.’’

For the Vineyard, go with the wonderful, Oliver Sacks-ian “Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard’’ by Nora Ellen Groce. (Sacks himself called it “beautiful and fascinating.’’) A recessive gene for deafness, enhanced by island intermarriage, created an extremely high rate of deafness here from the 17th to 20th centuries. So much so that both hearing and deaf all used sign language fluently and without thinking, a great case study in cultural adaptation.

Tacking from the Vineyard to Nantucket, please to read Chapter 14 of “Moby-Dick,’’ in which Herman Melville is like Rodney Dangerfield onstage at the Nantucket Comedy Festival. Out here, he jokes, it’s so barren they “plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time.’’ Ba-dum-bum! “One blade of grass makes an oasis, three . . . a prairie!’’

Going west, young man? Sled into Edith Wharton’s 1911 “Ethan Frome,’’ the ultimate New England tragic-classic, and be glad to live in an era that includes Kevlar. Wharton once compared her Berkshires characters to granite outcroppings, “but half emerged from the soil and scarcely more articulate.’’ Such limits movingly apply to the Mohawk Trail Regional High School teen who narrates Frederick Reiken’s graceful, mournful “The Odd Sea,’’ about a family coping with a son who is missing in the woods.

Connecticut A forgotten gem: “The Narrows,’’ from 1953, is an interracial romance unfolding in the fictional town of Monmouth, by a river that “was the blue of bachelor buttons, of delphinium.’’ The author is Old Saybrook native Ann Petry, who wrote the first African-American novel (“The Street’’) to sell more than a million copies.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Litchfield Country is full of big deal writers (Philip Roth, the late Arthur Miller) though few set their works there. But in 1931, Edna Ferber, of “Show Boat’’ fame, wrote an oddly compelling time piece called “American Beauty’’ set along the Housatonic River and tracing the slow fade of the Oakes, an old tobacco-farming family. “Show Boat,’’ tackled racism; this one takes on ethnic strife, as the Oakes get tense with their (morally superior, it turns out) Polish neighbors.

“No one can understand Connecticut/ Who leaves the rocks out of his reckoning’’ the old poem says. “Stories in Stone: How Geology Influenced Connecticut History and Culture,’’ by Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, bears this out. He’s quite entertaining on how the state’s gold helped get its charter, and its iron funded its manufacturing. Plus: Moodus noises, Wethersfield meteors, Portland stone. And is there cobalt in Cobalt? Find out here!

Rhode Island OK, you don’t exactly vacation in Providence, but you will so eat up “Politics and Pasta: How I Prosecuted Mobsters, Rebuilt a Dying City, Dined with Sinatra, Spent Five Years in a Federally Funded Gated Community, and Lived to Tell the Tale’’ by former Providence mayor Vincent “Buddy’’ Cianci. Think of it as a beer summit with Boss Tweed: funny, maddening, jaw-dropping.

Now ditch Providence for Newport and Thornton Wilder’s marvelous “Theophilus North.’’ It shadows a young man who spends the summer of 1926 there, teaching tennis and succoring the rich, who bring with them “fashion, competitive display, and the warming satisfaction of exclusion.’’

From there, head to South County, and breathe in both of John Casey’s spare, moving stories of a fisherman with some knotty family issues: the more recent “Compass Rose’’ and its predecessor “Spartina,’’ winner of the National Book Award in 1989. Which brings us to “Winner of the National Book Award: A Novel of Fame, Honor, and Really Bad Weather,’’ Jincy Willett’s sassy-titled satire. It’s about two Ocean State sisters, sensual Abigail and bookworm Dorcas, and it has wicked fun with New England pretensions and repressions. The name of their town? Frome.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@ comcast.net.