Author Archives: taylorofnewengland

About taylorofnewengland

BA Anthro @NYU, MA History @McGill. Studied death/burial/public health. Otherwise very cheerful. Former crypt tour guide, current writer, seeker. I write things sometimes, overthink things all the time.

Review of ‘The Eastern, Book Two: Later On’ by Deb Gould

Published by Maine Authors Publishers, 2020

“History is not about dates, dead generals, battles, land acquisition, or (oftentimes) disastrous governmental decisions! I’ve always felt that history is about the people who are forced to deal with the aftermath of all those; history is ordinary people living common, lovely lives.”        -Deb Gould

    Historical fiction has many stories to tell us and lessons to teach, but only if the author makes it possible for the reader to experience the past in terms of the present day. Deb Gould has accomplished this difficult task in her 2020 novel, The Eastern, Book Two, Later On.

    Using vernacular speech and historical terms she creates characters with whom a reader might stroll the rutty roads along the Eastern River or turn at a Grange dance in 1900. These are people whose parents and grandparents were the original settlers of Pittston, Maine. The succeeding generations are a bit more modern, with machines and consumer goods making their farm lives a bit easier than that of their forebears. Some have tired of farming and dream of ways to make a better living in Bangor, Portland, even Boston, Massachusetts. 

    From the first paragraph of Later On I remembered Jane and Nathaniel Blodgett from Book One: The Early Years as being younger friends whom I had not seen in a while. Like the Thompson, Crocker, Call and Stilphen families, they had been living their life without me since I put down the first book. At the conclusion I wondered what would become of those who stayed behind to live a rustic life, as well as those younger ones who moved away.

    Public records, newspaper clippings and journal entries help to build a background bulletin board of historical fact that enlivens the storyline, especially for those of us who have a love of Maine history. The milieu rings true from the perspective how we live today.

    Beyond the story and background elements, the way Deb uses her words makes it easy to become absorbed in the reality of this book, even more than in the first. It is not only the story of individuals, but also the telling of how a culture has evolved between 1820, year of Maine’s statehood, and 1920. Words are selected and merged succinctly, much as a poet might use them, to give the avid reader a subjective experience. Deb’s writing reveals the world we all might have experienced a century or more ago.

Review of ‘Gracie & Albert’ by Cheryl Grant Gillespie

Gracie & Albert 

By Cheryl Grant Gillespie 

Androscoggin Press (2019) 

In her memoir, Gracie & Albert, Cheryl Grant Gillespie does much, much more for me than  enhance the story of her birth family from what it was in her collaborative effort, Compassionate Journey: Honoring Our Mothers’ Stories. The powerful depiction of her parents’  relationship within the crucible of Gracie’s mental illness is so vivid that it brings to mind dark  incidents in my own family, happenings often hidden from my view as a child.  

Her use of often stinging dialog painfully focuses a spotlight on treatments of the insane during  mid-twentieth century, cruelly archaic by today’s standards. Yet, the ability of the Grant family members to accept their fates and tribulations reveals the strengths of their love for each  other. 

Each time Gracie pulled her legs up into a fetal position in a chair in her doctor’s office, the pain  of her own reality could not be any sharper. With this and other compelling images, Cheryl  shows her mastery of her craft.

Review of “Through Woods and Water” by Laurie Apgar Chandler

In her wonderful new memoir Through Woods and Waters, A Solo Journey to Maine’s New National Monument (2020), author Laurie Apgar Chandler heads her epilogue with a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt which fits the book to a tee.

    “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

It is the dreams of those who sought to establish Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, of Percival P. Baxter who bulled into existence Baxter State Park and of the author herself, which fill the pages of this, Laurie’s second tale of solo adventure.

In her first, Upwards (2017), she becomes the first woman to solo paddle the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge in New York’s Adirondacks to Fort Kent, Maine. Conquering fears and trepidations caused by the difficulty of her effort, she proves to herself and the reader that attempting such a difficult adventure brings with it an intimate knowing of the natural world. 

Through Woods and Waters is a more mature work which not only brings the reader along for the ride, but also portrays the character of the Maine woods and the monumental efforts of those who valued the wilderness enough to want it both preserved and shared with others. In these pages we find Henry David Thoreau, Governor Baxter, Theodore Roosevelt and others of an earlier age.  We meet Roxanne Quimby and her allies in the Quimby family foundation called the Elliotsville Plantation, Inc. who donated much of the Monument’s land and waters to the National Park Service. Laurie introduces her parents and all of the friends who supported her throughout the adventure.

I have enjoyed both books, but the second is created with such sparkling language and imagery that it nearly placed me there beside her in the woods and waters. Here is an example that sets the tone of the writing.

“To the west, the sun finally won through a line of clouds to reflect on the evening-dark waters, a subtle, tranquil ending to a day of unexpected blessings.

But, no, I turned again, and the sky exploded in a blaze of apocalyptic color, perhaps beyond the craft of words to capture. From two angles, like giant spotlights, the yellow-orange ember glow of the setting sun shone up upon billowing towers of cloud, purple-gray in the shadows. Below the black silhouette of treetops, two wide paths of coral light shimmered across the water toward camp.

At that moment, a barred owl began to call from deep in the forest, the notes finding their way straight into my soul.”

Rocks and Minerals of Waterford

    Last year a friend lent me Jane Perham’s book Gems and Minerals of Oxford County. While I had heard of her father’s West Paris shop, opened in 1919, and knew about the lure of gemstones found in various places around the area, reading that book opened my eyes to the rich subculture of mineralogy and rock hunting in our region. I began to wonder if the town of Waterford, known for its agricultural and industrial heritage, might also have a similar history of mining. 

    In that book and others by Van King and Jean Blakemore, the Pegmatite belt where most of the mining and collection has been done was a crescent running from Rumford in the east, through Andover, Newry, Hebron, Woodstock, Buckfield, Greenwood, West Paris to Albany, Stoneham and Lovell in the west. Then , as I researched, I learned of George Howe’s discovery of gemmy amethysts on Pleasant Mountain in Bridgton in the 1920’s and a more recent discovery of the same gem in Sweden during the 1970’s. If the geological crescent ran all around Waterford, surely the same deposits must lie beneath the town’s fields and hills.

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Christmas Tree Hunt: 1953

Beginning just after Halloween each year flatbed trucks, some as long as fifty-three feet, show up on our interstates travelling south stacked high with plantation grown balsam fir trees encased in plastic netting. Each load is on the way to a Home Depot, Lowes or roadside stand in your neighborhood. This is your Christmas tree, born and raised in Nova Scotia, P.E.I. or Aroostook County in Maine.

Some families, in order to shop local, may stop in at tree lots set up by churches, Elks’ clubs or family-run stands to purchase a tree fresher than the ones from away. However, one can never be completely sure that these trees, too, did not come from a 1000 acre tree farm near Fort Kent.

The heartiest Christmas tree hunters, those who would never use the abbreviated Xmas when writing their holiday cards, are purists who look into the woods down the street from their houses and say “Why not? See the tree, cut the tree. God has grown them just for me.”

Dad was such a purist in 1953 when he was thirty-three young years old. Like past generations of his farming family, he was set on finding the best tree in the forest for our family’s holiday. I was six at the time. He felt I might be trusted to assist in his search. It was an adventure for me, a chance to get out of the house on a mild December afternoon, an opportunity for him to teach me how to get ready for Christmas in the traditional way. Yes, there were trees for sale in town at Benny’s, and the Common across from our Congregational Church was loaded with “fresh-cut”. No matter how easy it might have been to drive down and strap a 6’ tree in the trunk of his Bel Aire, the way to get a tree was to take to the woods, in this case the small pine grove between the camp road and Janet DeArruda’s house.

My job was to pull a wooden sled along the snow filled drainage gully which ran along side Plymouth Street. Dad walked ahead carrying a newly sharpened bow saw and a coil of rope. As we hiked along, several cars whizzed by, neighbors probably on their way to the church lot. Each driver honked and waved thinking how strongly traditional we were, how exemplary.

When we came to the unpaved camp road, I began to look intently at the trees which looked to be about the right height. He paid little attention when I would point to one or the other fir or pine which might be suitable. Instead, his gaze was upward toward the sky.

Stepping off the level road, he plunged into the heart of the grove leaving large boot prints in the six inches of crusted snow left from last week’s storm. As hard as I tried, my stride was not long enough to fit his sunken prints. I had to trudge along, nearly tripping as my small boots broke through the surface.

Deeper into the grove we went, until Dad stopped short, pointing directly up above his head. “There’s the one, Bobby,” he shouted to me. “That’s it up on the top of this fir tree. See it is nice and full because it has been growing in full sun.”

His lesson was clear. All the trees that were in my sight were very sparse and thin with few branches on which to hang ornaments, lights and tinsel. Tinsel was my favorite thing to put on the tree. You placed just one strand at a time. It took forever to get it just right. I like that. We wanted a full tree with lots of branches to hold the silver strands.

At his side, I stared up sky high to the top. It was so far to get there. Was he going to climb or was his reason for bringing me along to have me learn how to climb a tree? Climbing the big old maple where our swings hung was easy for me. Even Lynne was learning how to get up the lower branches. However, this was a very high, very skinny, very scary tree.

Fortunately, Dad took the risk off my shoulders. He  put the coil of rope on one shoulder and undid his belt to wrap around the red saw so that it hung from his waist.

“Stand back there, Bobby. Move back with your sled to that clearing. After the tree comes down, you can load it on the sled. This will be a big surprise for your Mom and Lynne.”

A surprise? Hey, I liked that idea. I pictured myself dragging the Christmas tree back from the woods. Mommy and Lynne would be cheering. That would be great fun. I would be proud to bring it home.

Once I stepped back a safe distance, he began to hug the tree trunk and step up from branch to branch like he did on his big ladder when painting the barn. The lower branches were brown and brittle. Many broke under his weight. The going was slow, but he continued to climb until, reaching a point where there were green needles, he stopped to rest. I waved up at him. It seemed that he was up as high as our house.

I shouted to him, “Daddy, how high do you have to go? Can you see the house from there?”

He did not answer but instead climbed higher still until he shouted down “This is it! I’m going to cut right here and drop the tree down. Stay back there out of the way.”

My feet were getting cold, so I sat on the sled and waved back at him in agreement.

As the saw cut through the sappy trunk, saw dust flakes floated down toward me like fresh snow. The smell of the wood filled my nose. Such a sweet aroma.

“I’ve cut though,” he shouted as he pushed the top over to make it fall. However, the top hung up on other branches and would not get free. He grumbled as he kicked the butt this way and that. Then he took the rope from his shoulder and wrapped it around the girth of the cut tree. Down he moved a few feet. A pull on the rope moved the tree free and it fell. But only half way.

Again I heard him talking angrily to himself as he went lower, down to the level where it hung. Here he started kicking at it with one foot while he held tightly to the trunk. Just as it was freed to fall again, the branch on which Daddy stood snapped. He hung precariously by one hand. The rope fell. The saw fell. He fell.

Landing on his back in the crusty snow, he let out a howl that I had never heard before, stood up and brushed off the snow from his chinos. Though he seemed to be okay, he spent a few minutes rubbing his back and legs.

I ran to his side. “Are you alright, Daddy? You fell a long way. Did you hurt yourself?”

“No, I am okay. Just a bump or two.”

“When we get home with this tree, I do not want you to tell anyone that I fell. Do you understand? Just our secret.”

The idea of having a secret between me and him was a good idea. I liked that. So I agreed. We shook hands, just like I did with Kenny Fitzgerald when he and I rode our bikes too far down the street. A secret was a secret.

We loaded our Christmas tree on the sled. Dad showed my how to tie it in with the rope. Then back down the road we went triumphant with our prize. Dad limped a bit on the way back. As the doorway neared, he seemed to heal and stride as usual. When he called to Mom and she saw what we brought home from the woods, she smiled and gave him a big hug. Then she kissed me and inspected me head to foot to see if I was undamaged.

That was a great tree. Decorating her was a special event for me. I was able to explain to Mom how the branches were so full because it was grown in full sun. It took me almost an entire afternoon to hang the tinsel. What fun Dad and I had. However, I noticed that we never ever went out to the woods to hunt for a tree. The ones from the Church did just fine after that.

Interview with Fryeburg Public Library

Literally Speaking – Robert Spencer from Valley Vision on Vimeo.

On Tuesday, July 2, 2019 Robert was interviewed by Librarian Jennifer Spofford of Fryeburg, Maine Public Library which was taped by Valley Vision Cable for broadcast in the North Conway/Fryeburg area. Although the main topic was his 2018 historical fiction The Spinster’s Hope Chest (Maine Authors Publishers), questions also covered the techniques of writing.

I am a writer. Have been since I was ten years old and I wrote a poem to my mother when she brought my baby sister home from the hospital. What I do (among other things which have to do with living) is write as much and as often as I can about whatever it is that has my attention at the time.

This is my blog and, from time to time (usually once each month) I will post a short piece that might be of interest to you. Read it if you have the time. Share it if you like it. If you don’t, that’s okay, but it won’t keep me from what I do which is write. You see, I am a writer.