TREMONT — Ruth Moore readers can be a pretty fanatical bunch. We put “I Read Ruth Moore” stickers on our bumpers and if anyone asks us who Ruth Moore is? Well, they are in for an earful.
We will tell them that she was a native of Gott’s Island who left Maine in the 1920s to seek her literary fortune and eventually wrote 14 novels and countless poems about her Down East home and people. “The New York Times, called her ‘the Down East Faulkner,’” we will brag on her behalf.
We will inform them about the Hollywood movie based on her second book “Spoonhandle,” called “Deep Waters,” adding that Moore hated what they did to her story, and so do we.
They will learn that after 20 years living in California and New York, Moore finally made it home to Maine. With the movie money, she bought a large parcel of shorefront land in Bass Harbor where she and her life partner Eleanor Mayo (also a novelist and Tremont native) built a small cottage and tended a large garden together, eschewing the trappings of literary fame.
We will urge our captive audience to read Moore’s books, starting with her first, “The Weir,” a largely autobiographical story about a young girl growing up on a tight little island and yearning for a bigger life.
The thing about us Ruth Moore fans (aside from being talkative) is we tend to be older, maybe 50 on up, and this is one of our great frustrations. At some point toward the end of the last century, folks stopped reading Ruth Moore books. Despite the efforts of independent local publishers such as Sanford Phippen and Gary Lawless, the books gradually went out of print. We fans are horrified that there are a couple of generations who have missed out on the great pleasure of sitting by an open fire on a cold winter night with a Ruth Moore novel.
Enter Dean Lunt, publisher and chief of Islandport Press. He has picked up the “I Read Ruth Moore” banner and is republishing many of her novels, starting with “The Weir,” “Spoonhandle” and “Candlemas Bay.”
At a talk hosted by the Bass Harbor Memorial Library last week, for its annual Ruth Moore Days celebrations (yup, that’s a thing too!), Lunt told his audience that as both an admirer of Moore’s writing and as a businessman, he would like to see new generations of readers, especially Maine readers, rediscover her.
“I’m not taking on these books for pure nostalgia,” Lunt informed his largely gray-haired audience, “Clearly, she is one of the 20th century’s most important writers, but I have to make a living. And to do that, Islandport is finding ways to introduce her to and appeal to new readers.”
Lunt’s affinity for Moore runs deep.
Like Moore, he grew up in a small, insular, island village (Frenchboro) and at one point was the only student attending its one room school. Both he and Moore left their islands to attend high school and college and eventually decided not to live the lives they were born to – that is, fisherman or armed services for Lunt and fisherman’s or military man’s wife for Moore – and pursue, instead, literary careers.
“I never met Ruth,” Lunt said, “But I felt I knew her. Living in Frenchboro, I didn’t have many young people to interact with. So, I hung out with my grandparents and that generation – Ruth’s generation.”
The affinity grew deeper still when he started reading her books and was captivated by what he describes as the “clear-eyed, honest and straight-forward manner” with which she told stories. He found her utterly relatable.
Now he has made it his mission to get those without such an unusual connection to Moore’s life and works to find them relatable, too.
Some of it has to do with simple graphics – using more modern fonts and typeface for the reprints and choosing better book cover art. He has also launched a new Ruth Moore website, www.ruthmooremaine.com, where visitors are given a brief biography with pictures of her life, times and literary works. They are also invited to read and review her books.
Lunt said that he is pursuing movie options with Netflix and other such outlets, as well. He does sound a bit disgruntled that Moore herself, after one unfortunate encounter with Hollywood, dropped the ball or, more aptly, took the ball and went home with it rather than pursue what might have been a career as successful as other so-called “regional authors” like Larry McMurtry and Faulkner or Edna Ferber.
At this point, the 30 or so Moore fans in attendance at the library event jumped to Moore’s defense, offering a variety of good reasons for her refusal to promote her own work with press interviews, book signings or further movie deals. Hollywood bullies, sexism, her principles and perfectionism, her lesbianism and such were raised. And really, returning to your beloved home state to write what you want and live a good, simple life with your soulmate and extended family doesn’t sound much like defeat when you consider that other literary greats of the era, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Benchley, who did stay to play the brutal Hollywood game, ended up drinking themselves to death at young ages.
Moore may have enjoyed her cigarettes and scotch, but she lived a long and productive life, writing her last book, “Sarah Walked Over the Mountain,” at age of 79, just six years before her death.
Still, we fanatical Ruth Moore fans understand Lunt’s point. We wish she had done more to keep her works as part of the college and high school curriculums, especially in Maine. We would love to see a really good movie or series made from her novels (starring Frances McDormand, please). And we want folks to give us a thumbs up when they see our “I Read Ruth Moore” bumper stickers instead of wondering who the heck that is.
So, if we bridled a bit last week at his gentle finger wag at her perceived missed opportunities, we hope Lunt and his Islandport Press succeed in bringing this wonderful mid-century modern writer fully into the 21st century.