A reluctant writer takes to the road with a tale of a Maine mill town — only to find that her story is something close to universal.
By Monica Wood[O]n this crisp, lovely, blue-sky day — a perfect day to stay in Maine — I take to the road for a new-book ritual known to veteran authors as “reading to chairs.” This mandatory custom follows a narrative of absurdity: In Denver, in a room set up for 60, nobody shows up but your nephew and his wedding party. At a superstore in South Portland, the shift supervisor, for no reason you can fathom, blockades the empty reading area with police tape. In Santa Rosa, you address eight souls, two of whom are miniature Yorkies wearing loud shirts and paying strict attention.
As a novelist, I don’t mind the humiliations of the road — I’m lucky to be on tour at all — but this time, the story is true, so the stakes seem higher. When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine revisits one year of my childhood with three interwoven tales: Dad’s sudden death on his way to work one morning; Jackie Kennedy’s graceful example of widowhood; and the labor strike at the mighty Oxford Paper Company, where Dad had been headed when his big heart felled him mid-stride. My itinerary includes libraries, bookstores, and universities whose audiences — should there be any — will surely struggle to connect to a memoir set in a Maine mill town in 1963.
We came of age in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s; we lived through manufacturing’s booming prime and later bore witness to its waning.
On the first flight — Portland to San Francisco, two stops, much turbulence — I feel protective of my poor little book, unusually so. It was born of failure, after all, written after my longtime publisher deep-sixed my fifth novel. Swift and unceremonious, that rejection wrenched me from the comfy turf of a modest but reliable career. Writing about my hometown helped me feel rooted again, and, at least at first, I wrote only for myself, a naïve impulse that hadn’t visited me since high school. Orphaned by my publisher and liberated from the tyranny of the marketplace, I spent two happy years immersed in home.
My publisher axed this new book too — “too particular,” they said, meaning too regional, too personal. Too Maine. But here I am anyway — different publisher, same routine — beginning a coast-to-coast odyssey to peddle this rare thing, a book that belongs to me in a way my novels cannot, a book that gave me not a moment’s despair. Until today. On my way into the first store — in Berkeley, California — I feel greatly vexed. How am I to foist this Maine story on readers who haven’t heard of Oxford Paper, of the Androscoggin River, or even of Moxie?
Astonishingly, I find myself reading not to chairs but to readers — ardent, nodding readers — who afterward line up to tell me their own stories, relishing their connections, a scene that will repeat itself many times before tour’s end.
Their parents too left a beloved land, crossing a river not to make paper or blankets or dress shirts — those things are made elsewhere now — but to make plans, to make a living, to make do.
I’m not from Maine, but I also grew up Catholic.
I’m not from Maine, but I also remember the shock of the assassination.
I’m not from Maine, but I also lost my father, my baby sister, my first teacher, my irreplaceable grandpa.
These unexpected empathies, made in the first-person singular, cheer and surprise me because the words “I also . . .” form the heart of human experience.
The stories that move me most, however, begin not with the first person “I,” but rather with the precious, promising, plural pronoun “we.”
We made paper too.
An instant, electrifying connection.
We made buttons. We made blankets. We made cars.
Where have they come from, these people who remember their mill and factory towns with awe and humor and gratitude? They come from everywhere: Boise, Macon, Louisville, Providence. Eugene, Chicago, Tallahassee, Flint. We meet in bookstores and libraries in tribal recognition, we children of the great American post-war middle class, offspring of well-paid laborers who made the products that Americans lined up to buy.
Come here, find work, have children who will do better than you did, have better than you had. Living that vision was easier once.
We made shirts. We made shoes. We made batteries.
A thrilling bond. “We.” “Our.” “Us.” A shared knowledge of a childhood spent in the omnipresent shadow of a factory. The intertwined lives, the ambitious children, the immigrant parents and grandparents, the mixed legacy of dangerous, well-paid work.
We made toasters, boat trailers, aluminum siding, bicycle horns. Grandfather clocks, snowmobiles, desk lamps, jigsaw puzzles.
Fondly, we recall a golden age of blue-collar prosperity. We came of age in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s; we lived through manufacturing’s booming prime and later bore witness to its waning. The children of that era appear at every stop; they fill the chairs because my story is their story. They bring sons and daughters and grandkids, because, they tell me, “We want them to know.”
Music stands, hair clippers, linoleum, baseballs. Pencil sharpeners, toboggans, cable wire, industrial pipes. Lug nuts, plastic wrap, typewriters, mattresses, soap dispensers.
I misjudged the reach of my Maine story, misjudged it so completely that I spend much of the tour on the edge of tears, ambushed by the goodwill of strangers.
They crossed the footbridge over the river’s tainted waters,” I read, “carrying their lunch pails into the mill’s overheated gullet five, six, sometimes seven days a week.
Dress shirts, showerheads, candy bars, window screens. Cat food, lawn chairs, paving stones, manhole covers. Doorknobs, dinner plates, copper tubing, rubber soles. Garden shears, bed springs, flagpoles, drinking straws.
My last stop is Austin, Texas, for a reading arranged by a college pal, now a professor, who invited me to his handsome campus atop an urban hill. Jetlagged from my Western swing and still 2,000 miles from home, I neglect to fully consider where I’ve landed. Once again, I take my place, open my book, and begin with the book’s first line.
“In Mexico, Maine, where I grew up,” I read, “you couldn’t find a single Mexican.”
As the students’ laughter washes over me, I realize with a jolt how many of them — or their parents or grandparents — have come from the real Mexico, which, from my uncertain perch at this lectern, is roughly the distance from York to Houlton. Suddenly, my story feels particular indeed. What am I doing here, an Irish-descent Mainer in late middle age, telling a story so foreign, so long past?
“In fourth grade,” I continue, “after discovering that the world included a country called Mexico, I spent several befuzzled days wondering why it had named itself after us.”
More laughs, warmer laughs, the laughter of insiders. We’re in this together. Relaxing now, I read to them of my young father seeking work in Maine’s thriving paper mills, arriving from Canada to join immigrants from Lithuania, Italy, France, Scotland. Hopeful and heartsick, they left beloved lands that could no longer nourish them. I describe their sweltering shifts cooking acid or stacking lumber or manning God-size machines in deafening, cavernous rooms. I recount their grateful engagement with the labor that paved a dream path on which their children would walk away and leave them.
“They crossed the footbridge over the river’s tainted waters,” I read, “carrying their lunch pails into the mill’s overheated gullet five, six, sometimes seven days a week.”
Looking up again, I see in these young faces a quality of listening that by now looks mighty familiar. They know. Their parents too left a beloved land, crossing a river not to make paper or blankets or dress shirts — those things are made elsewhere now — but to make plans, to make a living, to make do. Different work, yes, but the same crushing hours, same dogged resolve, same ultimate purpose. Their children, in college now, walking a dream path their own parents paved for them, listen with a bone-deep understanding to a story from 2,000 miles and 50 years away.
I return home — Austin to Atlanta, Atlanta to Portland — carrying a bigger story than the one I left with, a huge and simple story that knows no tribe or generation. Come here, find work, have children who will do better than you did, have better than you had. Living that vision was easier once — we made pallets, we made doors, we made light bulbs — but as long as fathers and mothers and sons and daughters endure, so too will that “particular” story. People will listen. They will know.
Image credit: Charles Steinhacker, Courtesy of the National Archives’ Still Pictures unit