From afar, islands are mysterious, pushing us away and daring us to forget them. And yet this ribbon of blue water that separates, like a magnet, is a siren’s eternal call, tugging at our thoughts. And in remote areas like Down East, islands are usually shrouded in mist – a floating veil that hides their secrets. We ask ourselves: Who lives there, how is life there – who loves, who hates and, above all, what stories do islands hold?
In Island Secrets: Stories from the Coast of Maine, Catherine JS Lee draws from her own island experience and offers a compelling journey through island life through a superb collection of short stories. Lee is a seventh-generation Mainer who writes, teaches, and has published her short stories and haiku in a variety of print and online journals. Lee lives in Eastport.
From a dozen well-crafted stories comes a wealth of life situations in a location known as the Way Down East and its two fictional islands, Spruce Island and East Haven. One is a working-class island where fishing is part of everyday life; the other is a summer retreat for those who just want to dip their toes in the east. Regardless, the stories show a penchant for the emotional response to island life; together they are a testament to an observant writer who is comfortable with everything.
Lee evokes characters from both old and new days and presents them and their situations as they were intended, with some of the stories being written more than 20 years ago. Living up to the edict that Downeaster doesn’t like change, Lee gives us characters that are unstained by time and feel real and essential to each story.
In Never Love a Fisherman, the life-changing reputation a fisherman’s wife can receive while her husband is at sea is the catalyst that brings everyone in a fishing community a sudden realization of just how fragile life on the water is.
Rainey Faulkingham is the fourth generation of her family to spend summers in East Haven. She thought she would spend the summer there forever until she met Justin, a fisherman from Spruce Island. They fall in love, marry, and a life of fishing grips them both as each waits for something to happen, something that will ultimately change their plans.
Rainey is working on her latest children’s book when her husband’s strict husband’s wife walks through her front door and says, “Something’s happened to our boys, Rainey.” From that moment on, the story centers around the unknowing twitches of reality that penetrate every second as the search for survivors begins.
“Sheila Mac said that’s how life works. And she was right, Rainey thought. We make our plans and we do the best we can with what we’ve been given. It’s like boarding a plane to Paris and landing in Jamaica – not what we expected, a different world, a different beauty, but still worth the trip.”
In Island to Island, the dichotomy of two islands – East Haven and Manhattan – recedes into the background as the mystery of chance takes a firm hold on both shores, giving the reader a front-row seat to everything. Artist and baker Lucas Castile returns to his grandfather’s island home in East Haven. Recently divorced, his favorite East Village bakery gone and his art faltering, Lucas is looking for something. Events slowly give way to chance, his art is revived and flour, salt and yeast find a home again in East Haven. Something else will also become a part of Lucas, amidst the freshness of baked bread, splashes of color and a luscious sea breeze.
“Whatever happens, Lucas finally believes it’s going to be okay. All the false starts and stupid decisions and missed connections don’t matter anymore. He gives Riley a thumbs up and then turns his face to the breeze through the open window as they drive across the causeway heading towards the music jam and the future beyond.”
In Gone Like Sea Smoke, Steve Nelligan tells his wife Heather about a decision he made while on a shakedown cruise on their scallop tug Five Sisters. He has decided to replace his trusty sailor with his not-so-reliable brother Skip, fresh home after four years in the army. What follows, amidst family ties and marriage mysteries, is the unpredictable nature of life on and off the water.
“What I’m thinking now is how can this all go away so quickly. All these things that are so far beyond reason slip away from you just when you’re sure you finally get them. All of those things. They’re like sea smoke when you think about it. The way it can drive right through your fingers when it even obscures solid ground.”
Place creates person, and a person can crystallize or dull the luster of a place. Lee’s characters bring an essence of realism, flaws and all to each and every story while maintaining a constant grip on the past. That’s the beauty of storytelling, to create a sense of immediacy while maintaining a connection to the past in that shared sea called life. This great collection of stories does just that and more.
“Island Secrets: Tales from the Maine Coast”
By Catherine JS Lee
Sea Smoke Press, 2022, softcover, $14.95