How Meg Mitchell Moore’s adolescent stint Down East birthed a pitch-perfect beach read about love, longing, and suburban ennui.
Growing up, Eliza Barnes hauled lobster traps in a small Maine fishing village. As an adult, attending fundraisers and shuttling kids around her affluent Massachusetts bedroom community, she feels a kind of lack, an absence she can’t describe. When a family crisis calls her back Down East, to the town she left behind, Eliza has to confront her own regrets, a forgotten first love, and her doubts about her place in the world.
We’re suckers for any novel that uses the gridlock of summer Wiscasset traffic as a metaphor for its protagonist’s troubled mind. The Captain’s Daughter (Doubleday; hardcover, 320 pages, $25.95) is a breezy, poignant read that captures Maine and its culture in all its complexity. We talked with author Meg Mitchell Moore about how the Pine Tree State informed her fourth novel.
Presented by Doubleday
Tell us about the village of Little Harbor, the fictional setting of The Captain’s Daughter.
It’s a town in Maine a lot like Winter Harbor, a Down East fishing village with a small population. Its main industry is lobster fishing, and there isn’t a whole lot else going on except for a summer section that comes alive with visitors from out of town, like many Maine communities do. It’s pretty isolated, with people who have lived there forever and will probably never leave.
I didn’t get too much into outside influences — say, drugs and new technology, things I know are happening in small towns like that. But in my mind and when I wrote the book, I kept Little Harbor as a place that simply was what it was.
And this is no speculation on your part — you spent some of your adolescence in Winter Harbor, right?
I was there for just one year. My father was in the Navy, and we moved my senior year of high school from Maryland to what was then a Naval base at Winter Harbor, out at Schoodic Point, what’s now the Schoodic Education and Research Center.
It was the most far-flung place I’d lived. Not only is the town far-flung, the base was even more so. At the time — I didn’t know I would become a novelist, I guess — I didn’t think, “Oh, I really want to write about this place.” I was not delighted to be there as a senior in high school. It was isolated. In Maryland, I’d lived in an urban area — very diverse, big high school, a lot of different options and types of people, and then, all of a sudden, it was not that. It was a hard transition.
Any silver linings?
Oh yes. First of all, I met some great people, and I’m still friends with a lot of them. But what was so interesting to me was that after the long school year and that long, cold winter, summer came. And in Winter Harbor, there’s this area called Grindstone Neck, which is all summer homes. So summer came, and all of a sudden there were all these other people and kids who came with their families, so many things to do, people out on their boats, all kinds of different people, parties every night, fire pits out on the rocks — just all kinds of amazing stuff. And in my memory, the town kids mixed really well with the summer kids. It was a very fun summer — one of the best of my whole life, probably. But I didn’t know any of that was coming during that long winter. It was a revelation, and that juxtaposition was interesting when I was writing about this town, the way summer people change the dynamic.
When did you double back and decide this experience was worth writing about?
I didn’t think I’d write about the town, but it was always sort of in my mind. Then I went to the high school reunion six or so years ago. I had some good friends from Maine who were coming home for it, so I went. My husband and I drove up — he’d never seen the town, never seen any of it, so I took him around Schoodic, all those roads I used to drive as a lonely high school senior. And I thought, “It’s so weird coming back as someone who’s not from here.” Then I wondered what it would be like to come back if you actually did grow up there, but you went off and had a very different life. Ever since that time, it became something I wanted to write about.
Somebody reading The Captain’s Daughter who’s not familiar with Maine, what do you hope is the impression they come away with?
It’s funny, because I think when you live on the East Coast, you just assume that everybody knows what the East Coast is like. I just think small towns and particularly coastal towns have their own character, and there are so many really positive qualities about people who work with their hands, who work hard, who are happy with their lot in life and aren’t looking to leave. I think it’s really easy for people from, say, San Francisco or New York City to sometimes think, “Poor them.” “Poor them” that they live in this small town, or “poor them” that they have to work so hard these months out of the year. I sort of wanted to show the opposite — that a lot of the things people think they need to get away from are maybe what they should be striving for.