Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Book review: "Why the devil chose New England for his work" by Jason Brown

When I bought this book at the Brookline Booksmith, the girl at the counter said "this is a great book". I had bought it based on a short New Yorker review, and also, let's face it, because of its great title.

The 11 short stories are set in and around the fictional town of Vaughn, Maine. The characters go to Portland, take a train up north towards Quebec, talk about trips to Boston, all of which roots Vaughn into the real Maine. Indeed, the book opens with a map of Vaughn showing it on the (real) Kennebec river.

The book has a historic sweep, referencing actual history (the Plains of Abraham where the British General James Wolfe fought the French in the Battle of Quebec) as well as the history of the book characters and of Vaughn itself. One story starts "I belonged to a large family that had lived in the same town in Maine for over two hundred years". Reading the stories, many about traumatic events such as a drowning, you know that the protagonists will still be living together, in the same place in Maine, for the rest of their lives. You get the feeling that the place itself has a long memory.

The writing moves from matter-of-fact prose ("A hockey game started near shore, mostly fathers and sons and brothers in plaid jackets and blue caps, choosing sides according to size"), to Maine logging jargon ("Nothing in the river but sinkers and bark cake and raw waste from sixteen towns coating the bottom, methane bubbling up through the water and pulp and booms waiting for a freshet"), to beauty ("He turned around and looked up, as if at a mountain peak or a descending plane, but there was nothing above except a line of high white clouds pulling up over the valley like a cold sheet").

The stoic characters, restrained emotion, and historical sweep reminded me of Ireland. Indeed, the town of Vaughn, with its Quaker Meeting House and many churches, reminded me of northern Irish towns like Enniskillen. It is no coincidence that Maine has a Bangor and a Belfast, and is full of hard working people with long memories, who go a bit crazy at times.

Highly recommended. I pass on the recommendation from the Brookline Booksmith counter assistant.

[ The Boston Globe ran a great interview with Jason Brown by Anna Mundow last year. He talks about his New England family background (ships captains, carpenry, the Salem Witch Trials), the "New England Gothic" label, and working in the woods. Fascinating to read that while his stories often show the bad effects of Puritanism, he also understands the redemptive quality of hard work (logging in the Maine woods) which is a fundamental Puritan idea. ]

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