Down East 2013 ©
By Susan Conley
Morgan Callan Rogers opens her debut novel, Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea (Viking, New York, New York; hardcover; 320 pages; $26.95), at the beach, where the year is 1963. Maybe you remember this bygone era? When you bought your root beer at Ray’s General Store and parked your Ford coupe with the pet name “Petunia” at the state beach parking lot. “Louie Louie” blared on the radio and a big bottle of Johnson’s and Johnson’s Baby Oil lay next to your towel so you could perfect that tan.
Rogers captures this era of Elvis records and small-town Maine fishing life so vividly that you may wish you’d grown up here in the 1950s. Or maybe you did. If you’ve spent any time at all in Vacationland, you may also know some version of the love story told here: the fun-loving waitress from away named Carlie lands in Maine, gets a job at the Lobster Shack, and sweeps Leeman, the local lobsterman, off his feet.
It doesn’t end there. Carlie and Leeman marry, move into a small house on the Point — a finger of coastline overlooking the fishing fleet in the harbor. Like clockwork, they have a baby girl named Florine. Rogers writes with a big heart and a whole lot of empathy for her characters and she knows of what she speaks — she grew up in a town not so unlike Long Reach.
But this novel is more than a nostalgic trip about a vanishing Maine way of life. It’s also a deeply felt story about what happens when a mother disappears. Leeman is the stubborn husband who doesn’t like to travel. Ever. He wants to haul lobsters and love his wife (because he’s smitten) and drink six-packs of ’Gansett beer. But herein lies the trouble with this marriage.
Carlie wants to go where the action is. She’ll start small — all she asks for is one vacation a year. But Leeman says, “Why do you want us to go somewhere else? Most folks want to come to somewhere like this.”
Carlie isn’t buying it. “Because we do the same damn things every day. Get up, eat, work, eat, sleep, and get up. . . . ”
“I don’t do the same damn thing every day,” Leeman says.
“You’re right,” Carlie says. “You wear a different shirt on Tuesdays and Thursdays. . . . ” Rogers nails pitch-perfect dialogue as evidenced by this testy exchange. Here she’s landed on one of the perennial Maine questions: to fish or not to fish. To go seek your fortune outside the state or to stay put.
Carlie ends up leaving her lobsterman — but only for the weekend. Then no one can find her. Did she run off with the dark-haired man from the Lobster Shack? Did she drown? It’s the Maine voices that carry this book and make it an authentic page turner: fishermen and the women who love them, as well as a younger generation of girls and boys on the coast who skip town as soon as they get their diplomas.
Mothers do walk away. And each time they leave there’s a world turned upside down. By the mid-seventies the increasing nationwide divorce rates spread to Maine. Up and down the coast women were rethinking their choices. Rogers makes nice work of the ambiguity surrounding Carlie’s disappearance, and she’s able to weave a separate coming-of-age story inside the larger mystery.
We get to travel through the book with Carlie’s feisty daughter, Florine, and see the girl become a teenager. It’s no surprise that Florine acts up. She quits school, steals a girl’s boyfriend named Bud, smokes pot, has sex, and gets crasser and sharper and angrier each year.
It’s Grand, Florine’s widowed grandmother, who steals the novel. Grand says her Florine is “tougher than tripe” and she sticks by her granddaughter. In some ways Grand is the heart and soul of this book — a wise Mainer who goes down to the docks to welcome back the fishing boats every afternoon and who treats incoming weather with a great deal of respect.
Grand spends her days managing her messy family and baking bread, knitting sweaters, and talking to the soaps on TV. Rogers makes it clear that this next generation from the Point may not be able to live out the entirety of their lives on the Maine coast, but their hearts are still very much “rooted in Maine.” Rogers leaves the novel where she began it — deep in a love affair with the state.