By Jefferson Navicky
I first heard of Ruth Moore through a bumper sticker. In retrospect, this unusual occurrence reflects not only of Moore’s literary icon status in Maine, but also the state’s vibrant literary culture, which manages to exist, and indeed thrive, in a magical space – the “Maine of the Mind,” as writer and artist Stephen Petroff has called it – outside the Vacationland Matrix. The “I Read Ruth Moore” bumper stickers began to appear around New England in the late 20th century, courtesy of visionary poet Gary Lawless and his Blackberry Books. Some 50 years after the publication in the 1940s of Moore’s first novels, set among the Maine islands of her childhood, Lawless was responsible for Moore’s second wave.
Now, in the third decade of the 21st century, Ruth Moore is experiencing a third wave, thanks to Islandport Press, which is reissuing several of her works of fiction and poetry over the next few years.
The jewel of Moore’s literary crown is “Spoonhandle,” her 1946 novel of the fictional Big Spoon and Little Spoon islands. The novel, reissued earlier this year, spent 14 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List and was made into the regrettably-unfaithful-to-the-book movie “Deep Waters.” But the movie’s proceeds allowed Moore to move back to her beloved Mount Desert Island, just three miles from the Great Gott Island of her childhood.
Moore’s fictional drama of rugged independence, fishing and the tensions between island residents and wealthy folks “from away” lands in our midst during a pandemic, racial discord, and profound American and global upheaval. How does “Spoonhandle” stand up against these contemporary troubles? Like many classic works of literature, the stories of Ann, Willie and Hod have only gotten better with time; indeed, the book feels surprisingly prescient.
It’s Ann Freeman’s story – as she comes back home to Little Spoon Island to stand up to her father and to assert herself as a writer – that rises to the top of the novel. It’s easy to imagine Netflix optioning this coming-of-age dramedy and Emma Watson starring in it. The book feels in step with Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaption of “Little Women” or her 2017 “Lady Bird.”
Ann’s dedication to her writing and to finding a room of her own, a mere 20 years after Virginia Woolf published her landmark essay in England, stood out to me, as did her real estate deal: Ann buys her fish house/writing studio for $25 from Mary Mackay, a stern but generous woman. It’s a strikingly feminist transaction of empowerment, one in which both parties receive something valuable – though to buy a writing studio on the water for $25 (!) seems like the best of all possible deals today.
While Ann relies on Hod and Willie Stilwell’s carpentry skills to fix up the fish house, she is definitely self-reliant. The romance between her and Hod may yield the happy ending of the book, but when, in one of the most romantic scenes, he kisses Ann, it’s because she’s finished her novel: “‘That’s for being a smart girl and finishing your job,’ he told her. ‘And this one’s for me.’ He kissed her again.” As for Ann, we get the feeling she’ll be writing more books down at her fish house.
Moore’s fictional world in “Spoonhandle” is largely a white one. But while Moore is sometimes grouped with a certain kind of Maine coast fishing romanticism (which can include whiteness as one of its unspoken central tenets), she knew the notion of an all-white fishing industry was a fiction. She invested a significant portion of the narrative in “Spoohhandle” to Joe Sangor, a Portuguese immigrant fisherman who lives with his family on a small but desirable plot of land right on the water. Sangor’s story is complicated. Some of the locals treat him well and welcome him, and others do not. His fate in the story ultimately comes at the hands of those who do not, a situation that prompts a frustrated Hod to admonish a group of passive bystanders.
“You ought to plan sometime to take your heads out of the sand,” he says. “It’s kind of hard to believe that folks with funny names who ain’t lived all their lives in the same place and in the same way you have can be decent human people, too.”
Here we see the righteous Ruth Moore who worked as an NAACP investigator in the 1930s American South. Moore walked the walk for racial justice in her real life, so when she wrote about her home state, Moore knew that its future lay not with adherence to a mythologized past, but with how we welcome people here and speak to them with respect.
Moore’s ear for dialogue and the distinctive turns of phrase of the Maine coast now feel like gifts from the past, ones that sing of surprises, humor and poetry. Any young writers wondering if writing characters in dialect can work should take Ruth Moore as their exemplar. If a character disappears on a frivolous, foolhardy journey, he’s “off on a toot.” If a character drinks a bitter-herby drink, he gags and exclaims, “Bthah!” But my favorite is: “’Hauls like a halibut,’ Hod said, panting. ‘If it’s a shark, it’s a jeasly one.’” I love it not only for the alliterative H’s, but also for the pleasure of laying into a word like “jeasly.” Such phrases pepper the novel.
In Moore’s novels, the grandeur of the Maine landscape rises to the level of a character, maybe the most significant character. The epigraph of Moore’s first novel, “The Weir,” declares home as the place you’re homesick for, even when you’re there. In “Spoonhandle,” Moore brings the reader into the geography of her home, as in this passage near the end of the book when the peace of the landscape allows Myron, a shopkeeper and minor character, to make a difficult decision: “The houses in the village were an almost unearthly white. Down by the shore, the gray wharf-sheds loomed black against the silver water, and he could even make out the separate piles of the wharf, the light was so bright and clear. Like a hushing sound from far away, he could hear the slow, soft rise and fall of the sea, moving lazily up and down the ledges.”
Moore died in 1989. As it happens, that first bumper sticker I saw so many years ago was put there by the woman whom I would later be lucky enough to marry. Such is the magic that runs through this book. If you’re not yet familiar with Moore’s work, pick up “Spoonhandle” and experience its magic for yourself.
Jefferson Navicky is the archivist at The Maine Women Writers Collection, which houses the Ruth Moore collection. He is a poet, and the author of three books of fiction, including the forthcoming “Antique Densities.”
This piece was originally published in the Portland Press Herald May 23.