The New Maine Classics

From the highbrow(-ish) to the cult-y, these 25 Maine-media artifacts will stand the test of time.

New Maine Classics collage

From our February 2023 issue

Nothing but love for Kenneth Roberts, Edna St. Vincent Millay, E. B. White, and other old-school heavyweights, but the last 25 years have also given us a bumper crop of motley, memorable Maine storytelling — and not all of it on the page. We sifted through the last quarter-century of Maine media and plucked 25 gems — a sundry set of books, films, digital projects, and more — that’ll hold up in another 25 years.

1. The Lighthouse (2019)

Still from Robert Eggers's The Lighthouse
Courtesy of a24.

A black-and-white indie psycho-thriller that represents the unholy marriage of Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Sarah Orne Jewett. Wunderkind writer/director Robert Eggers studied the latter’s dialect stories to pen the dialogue for Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, who play two increasingly inebriated and stark-mad “wickies” stranded in their island lighthouse. And what dialogue! The Lighthouse is essentially a highly literate and howlingly funny 19th-century buddy comedy, with some fever visions of succubus mermaids and tentacled sea demons thrown in. A truly inspired and unhinged film. — BRIAN KEVIN

2. Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches
By John Hodgman (2017)

John Hodgman on a Maine beach
Photo by Molly Haley.

 Let’s get out of the way that too much of the first half of this book is about Massachusetts. Let’s also acknowledge a native-reader’s potential discomfort that some of the most insightful recent writing on Maine is by a self-consciously tweedy New York humorist and podcast host cum Hollywood character actor — and that some of it is (fondly, winkingly) disparaging. That said, Hodgman’s observations — about the absurdity of Maine humor, about E. B. White as a role model, about being a young-ish person in the country’s oldest state — are spot-on and hilarious. — B.K.

Book jacket for Booker's Point by Megan Grumbling
Courtesy of Texas A&M University Press.

3. Booker’s Point
By Megan Grumbling (2016)

One of the Maine-iest poetry collections in print, Booker’s Point renders in verse the voice of an “old Maine codger and unofficial mayor of Ell Pond.” Its lines, demonstrating the poetry of everyday speech, introduce us to York County’s Bernard A. Booker — his life, the history of his places, how he sees things. Grumbling’s poems preserve Booker’s roads, river, pond, and stories, and in doing so, they hold up an authentic rural way of life — “one long human span of reckoning” — that we might learn from before it disappears completely. — GIBSON FAY-LEBLANC

4. Weckuwapok (The Approaching Dawn) (2022)

Still from the film Weckuwapok
Courtesy of the Reciprocity Project.

It hasn’t enjoyed the audience of other films on this list, but this 13-minute gem by the Reciprocity Project filmmaking collaborative is a breathtakingly shot document of a uniquely affecting performance. In 2021, cellist Yo-Yo Ma joined Wabanaki musicians and elders for a dawn concert and storytelling session on Acadia ’s Schoodic Peninsula. The film, which interweaves dazzling drone footage with moments from the ceremony, is an invocation, as stirring as its dawnland setting, and a reminder that community sits nestled in the crook of landscape and ritual. — B.K.

5. Temp Tales, “Meat Recall” (2012)

Temp Tales cartoon characters
Illustration by Hanji Chang.

 Are you even a Mainer if no one’s ever forwarded you this charmingly goofy animated short (or if you’ve never uttered “drive-ah MacGyvah!” after seeing it)? More than three-quarters of a million YouTube viewers have watched a mild-mannered call-center temp field a call from a non-rhotic, Geary’s-swilling East Millinocketer, culminating in both of them yawping out snowmobile sounds. Married co-creators Andy O’Brien (a former Hannaford temp) and artist/animator Hanji Chang spun Temp Tales into a whole NSFW digital series, but there’s no beating the original for evoking good old, slightly profane Maine neighborly exuberance. — B.K.

Courtesy of Ecco.

6. Into the Raging Sea
By Rachel Slade (2018)

Five Maine Maritime Academy grads, four of them native Mainers, were among 33 crew members lost when the container ship El Faro sank off the Bahamas in 2015, the deadliest maritime incident involving a U.S. ship in decades. Slade’s taut disaster narrative is a Maine story insofar as those Mainers (and their anxious families and colleagues ashore) loom large in the retelling — including, memorably, the ship’s tragically flawed captain — but also because it sheds light on the troubling shortcomings of an industry integral to Maine since the age of sail. — B.K.

7. Maine’s Visible Black History
By H. H. Price and Gerald Talbot (2006)

Neighbors in the village of Peterborough, in Warren, from Maine's Visible Black History.
Courtesy of Marion Smith and the Waldoboro Historical Society.

Impressively researched, crisply written, and lavishly illustrated with historic photos, this 2006 volume (sadly, hard to find) is a narrative almanac of Black life in Maine, beginning with Cape Verdean sailors who arrived aboard 16th-century Portuguese ships and on through civil-rights activists and other community leaders at the turn of the 21st century. The book’s editors (and 42 authors) pull off two feats: shattering the myth of Maine as a “white state” and making a fascinating, approachable read out of what’s essentially a reference book. — B.K.

Elizabeth Strout
Mirco Toniolo/Errebi/Agf/Shutterstock.

8 & 9. Abide with Me and Olive Kitteridge
By Elizabeth Strout (2006, 2008)

 You can’t make a list of 21st-century Maine titles that omits Olive Kitteridge. The Pulitzer-winning masterpiece introduces one of the most fully realized Mainers in fiction: a smart, difficult middle-school math teacher chafing against marriage and small-town life. But Strout’s unjustly overlooked second novel, Abide with Me, deserves a place in the canon too. It depicts Tyler Caskey, a recently widowed, warm-hearted pastor in mid-century rural Maine. Like Olive, he lives in a community where people struggle with unmet desires, muddled emotions, and old injuries, sometimes giving in to their lesser selves. But in Abide with Me, Strout expands her focus to consider spiritual issues, invoking the heartbreaking quality of Maine’s actual light to examine the nature of Divine Light. In the end, the narrative takes its characters (and readers) where we hope to go: from darkness into light. — DEBRA SPARK

Courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf.

10. The Stranger in the Woods
By Michael Finkel (2017)

For 25 years, the phantom raided camps around North Pond. Who was he? Where was he hiding? And why? The answers, revealed when surveillance tech finally captured Christopher Knight, were heartbreakingly simple. Finkel’s bestseller is an engrossing, intimate portrait of a man who struck a tortured moral compromise: instead of living off the land, he lived off Land’s End — and whatever other brand-name provisions he could steal — ultimately reliant on the same consumer culture he’d tried to escape. Finkel’s empathy in exploring that conflict makes this a brilliant read. — ROB SNEDDON

Night of the Living Rez cover
Courtesy of Tin House.

11. Night of the Living Rez
By Morgan Talty (2022)

Let us add to the praise heaped upon this debut short-story collection from 31-year-old Talty, now a UMaine professor. A member of the Penobscot Nation who grew up on Indian Island, Talty fictionalizes the reservation and neighboring Old Town, moving his troubled, vulnerable characters back and forth across the bridge that separates them in search of . . . what? Drugs, companionship, relief from trauma. Sounds bleak, but the linked stories are full of unforgettable imagery and moments of grace. Honorifics include a New England Book Award and New York Times “100 Notable” nod. — B.K.

12. Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

Campers from Wet Hot American Summer
Courtesy of Eureka Pictures.

 A critical flop and box-office bomb, now a cult classic with two Netflix spinoffs. It’s 1981, and for the counselors of Waterville’s fictional Camp Firewood, a summer’s worth of wacky, horny, depraved storylines unfolds in a single day: secret trysts, a high-stakes talent show, a drowned camper, a piece of NASA space debris plummeting towards Earth. Wet Hot’s twisted humor and over-the-top characters (played by too many comedy heavyweights to list) brilliantly spoof and salute old-school teen sex comedies and the Maine-camp mystique. — BRIDGET M. BURNS

Courtesy of HBO.

13. The Sopranos, “College” (1999)

More than one critic has credited the much-admired fifth episode of HBO’s mob series with forever changing television, introducing the antihero archetype that came to dominate prestige TV. It finds New Jersey capo Tony Soprano and daughter Meadow in, of all places, Maine — two Maines, really, as prospective student Meadow tours Colby, Bates, and Bowdoin’s manicured quads and hallowed halls, while Tony haunts shabbier environs, looking to ice a rat coincidentally living in Waterville. When he does — his first truly brutal moment of the show — we get that Maine’s duality has nothing on Tony’s. — B.K.

14. Almost, Maine (2004)

Lovers on a bench from the play Almost, Maine
Photo by Mical Hutson, courtesy of Portland Stage.

A romantic comedy for the stage, made up of nine vignettes of love and loss, that charms audiences with light surreal touches, such as a woman who carries pieces of her broken heart in a paper sack and a couple who keeps all the love they’ve given one another in big red bags. Playwright (and hey-it’s-that-guy character actor) John Cariani grew up in Presque Isle (“presque” means “almost” in French) and premiered his heartwarming, sweetly absurd first script at Portland Stage Company. Eighteen years later, it’s America’s most produced high-school play.  — EDGAR ALLEN BEEM

15. Blow the Man Down (2019)

Scene from Blow the Man Down movie
Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

You may not have heard much about this quirky black dramedy, which won festival accolades and then dropped on Amazon in March of 2020, as COVID sucked the air out of the media universe. But critics loved it, reliably comparing it to a salty, feminist Fargo and praising the posse of elder stateswomen, including Margo Martindale and June Squibb, who wield grandmotherly, mob-like influence in a seedy fictional fishing town (it was filmed in Harpswell). Sex, murder, and a Greek chorus of singing lobstermen — this one’s on its way to cult status. — B.K.

Cover of the book Midden
Courtesy of Fordham University Press.

16. Midden By Julia Bouwsma (2018)

A collection of deft poems that summons stories from Malaga Island, a mixed-race community near Phippsburg until the state evicted its 47 inhabitants in 1912, sending eight to a school for the “feeble minded.” Bouwsma, now Maine’s poet laureate, seamlessly weaves in quotes — as from then-governor Frederick Plaisted: “the best plan would be to burn down the shacks with all of their filth” — and brings us inside the lives of real people, like Abbie Marks, a mother who tells her daughters (and us), “Find it. I still have the map.” — G.F.

17. “Just Another Fish Story” By Molly Menschel (2004)

Beached whale
Bastiaan Schuit | Shutterstock.

In the early aughts, Portland’s Salt Institute for Documentary Studies turned out a generation of now-renowned voices in public radio and podcasting. But the era’s most indelible Salt story has no narration, just a chorus of overlapping voices, all down east to the core, recounting an incident of a beached whale, in Lubec. Menschel’s award-winning audio collage, woven over a jaunty mouth-harp score and since aired on several public-radio programs, is a timeless yarn about small-town living and dying — and a testament to how people telling the same story can insist on different facts. — PETER ANDREY SMITH

18. Empire Falls (2005)

Scene from HBO's Empire Falls adaptation.
Courtesy of HBO Films.

Richard Russo adapted his own Pulitzer-winning novel for this impeccably cast HBO miniseries, star-studded back when Hollywood A-listers were still small-screen anomalies. The novel could just as easily be on this list —  it brings patience and nuance to the arc of middle-aged diner manager Miles Roby and the denizens of his decaying mill town, while the adaptation lays its themes on thick. But scene for scene, the TV version is a parade of wowza performances — by leads (Ed Harris, as Roby; Paul Newman, as his scoundrel dad, Newman’s last live-action role) but also bit players like Danielle Panabaker, as Roby’s daughter, and William Fichtner, as an oddly empathetic heel. Comes by its mess of awards and nominations honestly.  — B.K.

19. Dead River Rough Cut: Director’s Cut (2002)

Scene from Dead River Rough Cut
Courtesy of Stu Silverstein.

Allegedly the most requested film among Maine State Prison inmates, this doc follows two charismatic (if crude and misogynistic) outcasts flipping the bird to society’s constraints — mortgages, factory jobs, auto payments — to live unencumbered in shacks in the Maine woods. Finally presented as envisioned in 2002, the footage circulated in various shorter forms since 1976, earning a cult following for its depiction of its grizzled subjects hunting, trapping, cutting pulpwood, and candidly discussing everything from beavers’ sex lives to do-it-yourself dentistry. A zealous fan club once petitioned to make it required viewing for Maine driver’s-license renewals. — RON JOSEPH

Barkskins cover, by Annie Proulx
Courtesy of Scribner Books.

20. Barkskins By Annie Proulx (2016)

A list like this needs at least one sprawling doorstop of capital-L Literature, and conveniently, one of the few standout recent novels of this sort is Proulx’s multigenerational saga of Franco-descended woods workers. Maine, while prominent, is just one of the settings, but the book’s central theme — that timber exploitation has shaped the modern world as much as any other force — is as relevant in the Pine Tree State as anyplace. Never has a 300-year epic felt so intimate, and you won’t look at a white pine the same way again. — B.K.

Scene from documentary The Way We Get By
Photo by Sean Carnell, courtesy of American Documentary, Inc.

21. The Way We Get By (2009)

An Emmy-nominated, immensely moving documentary. Filmmakers Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly follow three Maine seniors (including Old Town native Gaudet’s mom) who steadfastly greet returning soldiers at Bangor International Airport as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars drag on. But what begins as an exploration of patriotism and duty quickly becomes a poignant meditation on aging and vulnerability — and on the search for meaning and purpose in the face of these things. The subjects of this South by Southwest Special Jury Award winner will stick with you long after. Watch with a box of tissues. — B.K.

22. The Lost Kitchen (2021–present)

Erin French cooking in The Lost Kitchen TV show
Courtesy of Magnolia Network.

Hear us out: unscripted TV is America’s most popular storytelling vehicle, and Magnolia Network’s behind-the-curtain peek at Erin French’s Freedom restaurant is a middlebrow docusoap at the genre’s most winning. A beautifully filmed glimpse of something most viewers won’t experience (sought-after Lost Kitchen rezzies), it has, in French, an oh-so-charming lead. It’s also a love letter to Maine foodways and the hardworking folks who tend them — fishers and farmers to French’s steadfast staff — evoking the romantic (romanticized?) process of turning the state’s bounty into (gorgeous) world-renowned dishes. — ADRIENNE PERRON

23. “Buttery Flaky Outtakes” (2012)

Buttery Flaky Crust video outtakes
Courtesy of Sutherland Weston.

 For a TV spot plugging I-95’s stalwart Dysart’s Restaurant, Bangor’s Sutherland Weston ad firm invited septuagenarian regulars Sonya and Jack Palmer to praise a pot pie. As Jack repeatedly flubs his (simple) line, Sonya’s reaction devolves from side eye to exasperated scolding. After 8.9 million YouTube views, their viral outtake reel is as funny as the first time you watched it. Saturday Night Live spoofed it later, but Will Ferrell and Kate McKinnon’s sketch lacks the love-you-and-want-to-strangle-you charm that makes the original so good. Say it with me: “Baked in a buttery, flaky crust.” — B.K.

24. In the Bedroom (2001)

Tom Wilkinson in scene from In the Bedroom
United Archives GmbH | Alamy Stock Photo.

Gut-wrenching, career performances from Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, who play guilt-wracked parents in idyllic Camden in a tour-de-force drama it’s impossible to summarize without giving away key plot points. “The bedroom” of the title is the rear compartment of a lobster trap (aka the parlor), where lobsters will clash when confined — and, well, it’s a metaphor. The multiple-Oscar nominee, which launched Todd Field’s directing career, tackles grief and revenge and small-town secrets, with a real firecracker of an ending. Sorry, A Beautiful Mind, this should have won Best Picture. — B.K. 

Cover of Colin Woodard's book The Lobster Coasst
Courtesy of Penguin Books.

25. The Lobster Coast
By Colin Woodard (2004)

As a popular history of post-settlement coastal Maine, it’s an excellent and surprisingly breezy read. But it’s even better as a history of the popular idea of Maine, what Pulitzer-finalist Woodard calls “a stalwart, self-sufficient place that has somehow dodged the excesses that plague the rest of the country and retained the more connected, humane life.” The story of how generations of explorers, exploiters, excursionists, and exurbanites have shaped this mythology — and whether the state actually lives up to it — makes for a page-turner. — B.K.


Down East magazine, February 2023