Read Your Way Around the World is a series exploring the globe through books.
In American fiction, my state is code for outpost. Maine is where you send a character you want to get rid of, someone who goes off to raise goats, farm oysters, prep for the apocalypse — or write a novel. Apart from California, I can think of no other state in the Union that lives as strongly in the national collective imagination as a place to play out a festering dream.
I was in my mid-20s, waitressing on an island off the coast of Rockland, Maine, when the actor William Hurt — ultrafamous, at the height of his career — sat down in my section. I’d heard rumors that morning that he was on island, as they say, on a solo “soul-searching” sail up the coast and that his navigational equipment had broken down. He’d come to the nearest harbor for help. That was my first glimpse of the power of Maine’s particular allure. I’d grown up in Massachusetts, and no one ever searched for their soul there.
The standard fantasy is often coastal and involves fog, wet rocks and lobster boats rumbling out at dawn. Our shoreline is vast, over 3,000 miles of it, with hundreds of peninsulas and more than 4,000 islands. But Maine is not all coast. It is farms and mill towns and forests, small cities and suburbs and strip malls that look like those anywhere else in the country, except for the pointed trees off in the distance.
Some extraordinary literature has come out of this state, from all regions. Reading and writing are deeply valued up here, and we have a big, passionate literary community. Even our governor is a poet. Here are some suggestions to start with, but I barely scratch the surface with this list.
What should I read before I go?
Start with “Night of the Living Rez,” by Morgan Talty, a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation. This collection of linked stories came out last summer, keeps winning prizes and is magnificent.
Move on to “When We Were the Kennedys,” by the novelist and playwright Monica Wood, a memoir of growing up in the mill town of Mexico, Maine. Somehow Wood spins the story of her father’s sudden death and the slower death of the once-vibrant economy of her hometown into an exhilarating read, chock-full of love and humor and beloved characters. You will not pass through a Maine mill town again without thinking of the Wood sisters and their mum.
Chances are you’ve already read “Olive Kitteridge,” Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer winner about one of literature’s most well-rendered and uncomfortably human protagonists. If so, read everything else by Strout. Most of it is set in Maine and could be set nowhere else, and she is a genius.
E.B. White is at least partially responsible for the pulling-up-stakes-and-moving-to-Maine impulse. In 1938, he and his wife and young son left New York for Brooklin, Maine. He raised hens and pigs and cows and wrote about it in “One Man’s Meat,” a collection of short essays originally written monthly for Harper’s for $300 apiece (over $6,000 each today). It is impossible to read White and not feel that the clean air and cold water scrubbed his sentences clear as glass.
Which authors should I bring along?
You will not be able to put down Abdi Nor Iftin’s “Call Me American.” Born and raised in Mogadishu, Somalia, amid famine and war and daily threats to his survival, Iftin won entrance to the United States in a visa lottery in 2014. He came to Maine, an unofficial sanctuary state, and wrote this exquisite book. Iftin helps us not just understand but feel the peril and sacrifices of his journey.
Susan Conley’s novel “Landslide” is a deeply moving story of a family in trouble on Maine’s Midcoast. Conley captures the effects of the decline of the fishing industry on one household, as well as the great swells and troughs of motherhood and marriage.
“Empire Falls,” by Richard Russo, is set in another town on the decline, this one in central Maine with a defunct shirt factory that looms at the bottom of the main street. No one captures the pain and humor of class friction and personal and societal failure quite like Russo. He earned a Pulitzer for this poignant, big-hearted novel. He is one of the big hubs of our literary community, and you may run into him on the eastern trail by the sewage plant here in Portland like I did recently.
For those of you who like to shiver — and not just from our Arctic blasts — pick up a copy of Beth Gutcheon’s superb and chillingly riveting “More Than You Know,” set on the Blue Hill Peninsula, or the terrifying “Salem’s Lot” or “Bag of Bones,” by Maine’s own Stephen King.
Which books will take me to places I might not be able to visit?
Head west into rural Maine with Carolyn Chute, whose debut, “The Beans of Egypt, Maine,” broke the literary Geiger counter in 1985. For a more contemporary and expanded look at the fictional Egypt, you can move on to the first three volumes of her quartet of novels about the Settlement, which can be seen as a farm cooperative or a cult. Her concern is perspective: how poverty is seen versus how it is lived. Chute writes about predatory capitalism from the vantage point of the Mainers who are the least enfranchised and most abandoned, “stressed to the breaking point,” she has written. “I have lived poverty,” she has said plainly about her own life. “I didn’t choose it. No one would choose humiliation, pain and rage.”
For exquisite trips into nature, you could try Henry David Thoreau’s “The Maine Woods” or Bill Roorbach’s “Temple Stream” or Rachel Carson’s “The Sea Trilogy,” a collection of the books she wrote before “Silent Spring,” which began the environmental movement.
If you didn’t mail in your postcard for the lottery to secure a reservation this year at The Lost Kitchen, the celebrated restaurant in Freedom, Maine, don’t panic. Its chef, Erin French, wrote the memoir “Finding Freedom” as well as “The Lost Kitchen: Recipes and a Good Life Found in Freedom, Maine: A Cookbook,” which will tide you over till next year.
Can’t get out to a remote island? Read Susan Minot’s gorgeous “Evening,” about star-crossed lovers who meet at a wedding full of summer people. Never in the history of Maine literature has a sail closet been so sexy.
What about a literary pilgrimage?
There are the houses: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s in Portland and Sarah Orne Jewett’s in South Berwick and the house in Brunswick where Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” You can go up to Bangor and take a ride with SK Tours of Maine to see landmarks that relate to events in Stephen King’s books.
We have some fabulous bookstores in Portland. There is Print in the East End and Longfellow Books in the Old Port and Yes Books on Congress Street, the kind of bookstore you thought had disappeared forever. It’s a small space filled floor to ceiling with used books. Your purchase will be rung up on a calculator and written down on a little sales pad, and at that moment your transport back to the late 1970s will be complete.
Head Downeast to Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick, Mockingbird Bookshop in Bath, Left Banks Books in Belfast and Blue Hill Books in Blue Hill. Each one is a little piece of heaven.
How about children’s stories?
Many of my own and my children’s most loved books were made in Maine. “Charlotte’s Web,” E.B. White’s masterpiece, culminates at the Blue Hill Fair, which you can still visit over Labor Day weekend every year. I wanted to be Fern my whole childhood. Also, of course, “One Morning in Maine” and “Blueberries for Sal,” by Robert McCloskey, and “Miss Rumphius,” by Barbara Cooney. For young adults, “Welcome Home or Someplace Like It,” by Charlotte Agell, is about a girl who is sent to Maine and very slowly falls in love with it.
What if I want to write while I’m in Maine?
You will. And we have you covered. Stephen King’s “On Writing” is both a bundle of good advice and a riveting memoir. (The moment when he takes his first drink on a school bus has stayed with me for decades.) “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” by Alexander Chee, who grew up in Cape Elizabeth, is a fantastic and inspiring collection of essays. Other must-reads are Debra Spark’s “Curious Attractions” and “And Then Something Happened” and Bill Roorbach’s “Writing Life Stories.”
Any places to curl up and read?
My favorite place to read in Portland is on a blanket on the grass under a tree on the Eastern Prom overlooking Casco Bay and a handful of islands. When you get hungry, you can walk down to the food trucks, and when you get hot, you can venture a little farther down the hill to the beach and jump in the water. The feeling in your limbs will come back eventually, I promise.
If there’s too much snow, head up Munjoy Hill up to Belleville, for coffee and a pain au chocolat that smells and taste like Paris. Truly. (I have a friend who moved here recently and wept when he took his first bite of a Belleville croissant.) Sit with your book by the window in the sun. Wait for spring.
Lily King’s Maine Reading List
“Night of the Living Rez,” Morgan Talty
“When We Were the Kennedys,” Monica Wood
“Olive Kitteridge,” Elizabeth Strout
“One Man’s Meat” and “Charlotte’s Web,” E.B. White
“Call Me American,” Abdi Nor Iftin
“Landslide,” Susan Conley
“Empire Falls,” Richard Russo
“More Than You Know,” Beth Gutcheon
“Salem’s Lot,” “Bag of Bones” and “On Writing,” Stephen King
“The Beans of Egypt, Maine,” Carolyn Chute
“The Maine Woods,” Henry David Thoreau
“Temple Stream” and “Writing Life Stories,” Bill Roorbach
“The Sea Trilogy,” Rachel Carson
“Finding Freedom” and “The Lost Kitchen: Recipes and a Good Life Found in Freedom, Maine: A Cookbook,” Erin French
“Evening,” Susan Minot
“One Morning in Maine” and “Blueberries for Sal,” Robert McCloskey
“Miss Rumphius,” Barbara Cooney
“Welcome Home or Someplace Like It,” Charlotte Agell
“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” Alexander Chee
“Curious Attractions” and “And Then Something Happened,” Debra Spark
Lily King is the author of five novels, most recently “Writers & Lovers,” and a short-story collection, “Five Tuesdays in Winter.” Her 2014 novel “Euphoria” was chosen as one of The New York Times’s 10 best books of 2014.