Stern Men, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This 2000 work is a remarkable first novel that I have heard little about. It recreates the life of lobstermen on two rival islands off the coast of Maine. It is particularly notable for its casual, underwritten style. And is further notable for breaking a traditional rule of fiction—show, don’t tell. For the novel begins by describing the history of the two islands, Fort Niles and Courne Haven, then the history of their local lobster industry, including life on the lobster boats, and continues by introducing the rivalry among families of the two islands. This creates the novel’s initial tension, as the lobstermen on Fort Niles are more independent, while those on Courne Haven are more collaborative.

The novel first introduces Mary Thomas, the mother of the novel’s main character, Ruth Thomas. Mary was “adopted” by the wealthy Ellis family on Fort Niles to serve as an aide to one of their daughters. But after Mary marries and has Ruth, she leaves the island and never returns. Ruth, who does not know why her mother has vanished, is taken in by the neighboring Pommeroys. But it is then decided that this girl be exposed “to something other than lobster fishermen, alcoholism, ignorance, and cold weather.” And so Ruth is sent away, against her will, to a private high school in Delaware with support from the Ellis family. Upon returning, however, as a determined and smart young woman, she insists that Fort Niles is her true home. And as she tells Mrs. Pommeroy, she will refuse to discuss with Mr. Lanford Ellis anything further about her future, because from now on, “I’m not going to do a single thing with my life that the Ellises want me to do. That’s my plan.”

She says this because she senses her life being overseen by the wealthy patriarch of Fort Niles, the elderly Mr. Ellis, who resides on the island only during the summer months. And she is not comfortable with her life being controlled by someone else. But what is she to do? She tries to ignore the possibility of becoming one of the stern men of the title, those uneducated youth of both islands who are able to earn a living only by the backbreaking work of dumping empty lobster traps into the ocean and then pulling them out weighted down with lobsters. (Stern in the title also suggests the attitude that these young island men need to survive their rough life, as well as deal, along with their captain, with the rival lobster boats from the other island.)

Nothing dramatic happens, however, among these lobster families to draw the reader into this book. What does so is the simple conversations that reveal their complex relationships. As a review in Mirabella says, “the novel is Emersonian in its clarity and Austenian in its sly social observations.”

So what does draw the reader on is the humanity of these islanders, and the relationships that develop even within their frequent rivalries. Plus, the author’s unobtrusive style. As a result, it is like dropping in on various colorful Maine characters, such as Ruth’s taciturn and rigid father Stan, called Greedy Number Two for the intensity of his lobster hauling; Angus Adams, her father’s crusty pal, called Greedy Number One; Simon Adams, called the Senator, who fears the ocean but wishes to establish a local museum of natural history; Rhonda Pommeroy, a widow and amateur beautician who takes in Ruth and is her best pal; and a persistent Cal Cooley, a toady to Mr. Ellis.

And so, it is the casual relationships among these interesting characters that draw the reader on. For example, it begins with the lobstermen of the two islands. The tension mounts when some drop their lobster traps into an area claimed by a lobsterman from the other island. After which the rivalries become personal.

Along with the wit of both the author and Ruth as they deal with these rivalries., our main curiosity is about whether this young woman will find her true vocation, and whether it will be on the island—or elsewhere, as Mr. Ellis seems to encourage. We have hopes for her, however, when she declares at one point, “Watch me! Watch me, world! Look out, baby!” She surely seems capable, if only she finds herself.

But the author introduces another level of reality, along with the mulishness of these Maine residents; and it is through her dialogue. For both men and women use scatological and irreverent exclamations that emphasize their homey, down-to-earth attitude, an attitude that reflects little value being given to education. Such as that which Ruth has received, with the aid of Mr. Ellis.

Moreover, the author also observes her characters, as I said, with a certain wit, and this helps to keep the reader at a distance. Which is not unlike how Ruth’s witty conversation often helps her to control her dealings with her flighty father, the supporting Mrs. Pomeroy, the persistent Cal Cooley, the imposing and elderly Lanford Ellis, and her rediscovered mother, as well as with the stubborn Senator Adams, the persistent and haughty pastor Toby Wishnell, and with his nephew Owney, in whom she sees the possibility of love—and another reason to remain on the island of Fort Niles.

Finally, in a strange Epilogue, Ruth achieves her dreams. I call it strange, because we do not follow her life as she achieves personal fulfillment. Presumably, the author feels she has already established the characteristics of Ruth that make this possible. And as a bonus, there is even a small surprise for the reader when Ruth agrees at last to meet the domineering Mr. Ellis to discuss not just the future, but their future.

Gilbert presents here the complexities of a simple life, and the fragility of depending on a single occupation. And fills these two islands with colorful characters whose narrow view of life limits them. Except, it does not limit Ruth, who is both smart and feisty. In fact, we see her as the hope of a new generation. And at the end of the novel, many islanders seem to realize this as well.

While the subject of Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love never drew me to that well-known work, I thoroughly enjoyed The Signature of All Things, and this first novel now makes me still more interested in Gilbert’s fiction. (August, 2019)

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