My mother left me her most prized possession — a collection of her mother’s novels. Mother, Eleanor Jacobs Mitchell, read them through once a year. I had read one or two, or maybe a few chapters in another, during visits to my parents in East Parsonsfield, Maine. Due to a series of changes in my life, the books have been in storage for several years. This fall I decided it was time I made their full acquaintance. I set them in chronological order of publication on the top shelf of my bedroom bookcase, supported on either end by my Noah and the Ark bookends, then took down the first volume and commenced to read.
The Old Ashburn Place was Margaret Flint Jacobs’ first novel, hammered out on a manual typewriter during sweltering southern nights after her children were in bed. It was published in 1935. The action is set, however, in the beauty and coolness of the Flint family’s ancestral stomping ground, West Baldwin, Maine — pre-World War I.
Margaret Flint (her pen name) was no ordinary lady author, and she did not, I find, write “lady author” books. The conflict in the story is a man’s impossible-therefore-unrequited love in a tug of war with his unsought-but-inevitable adultery. The graphic detail of such scenes, which would be written out at length in a modern novel, is abbreviated here; but the emotional impact is almost hard core. The book won the First Novel of the Year prize, run by Dodd, Mead Publishers, in 1936. This housewife and mother, who had been pounding that typewriter for many years, was swept into a round of book signings and speeches.
Reading The Old Ashburn Place was a re-read, and I found it to be as much an encyclopedia of farm life in Maine, as a memorable story. Also, it is the only Flint novel currently available — new, on Amazon and from the publisher, Istoria Books. (IB publishes ebooks and print on demand paperbacks. Fiction: romance, mystery, and literary women’s fiction. See http://www.istoriabooks.com/IstoriaAuthors.html for more background on both the book and its author.)
Since the first novel is the only one to have received much notice, I’ll make this a long post and briefly cover them all, in an amalgamated review.
The second novel, Valley of Decision, — written after my grandfather’s passing and after my grandmother had moved the family back to Maine — surprised me by being set in the deep South, on the Gulf coast. My grandmother’s habit of close observation of nature, along with her curiosity about what makes humans tick, comes through almost as well in the Southern as in the Northern context. Evidently, her sojourn in the south with husband and six children had not been all perspiration and diapers to change. Yet I found this book less appealing than The Old Ashburn Place, partly because she was delving into some rather deep psychology, into the area of mental manipulation. Character and plot development get downright creepy. And, I was beginning to wonder, small-mindedly, if ALL her heroines were going to be petite, with small hands and smaller perception of the havoc they raise in the hearts and innards of her heroes? In fact, not one of her characters is perfectly beautiful or handsome, completely good or wicked. One feels that the author yearned over all of them.
Deacon’s Road (1938) introduces Ephraim Squire, the young, farm-inclined hero, who yearns to revive the ancient family farmstead. The ups and downs of his possibly achieving that hope form the framework for the story. And with this novel, the heroines become more realistic.
As the plot unfolds, the reader is introduced to old-time town meeting politics and to the caste system among the ancient families, newcomer wannabes, and the poor. Serious news for today’s reader is how hard thrifty farm women worked. Eph’s aunt, Hetty Hicks, what we today might call a swinging single, is also found crocheting a bedspread, “all in one piece” to sell in exchange for paint to redecorate the bathroom on her father’s farm, buy the material for her spring clothes, and “have some money to tuck away in the bank besides. Yes, along with her spring cleaning, she would do that bathroom over. . . . nobody could say she slighted her regular housekeeping in favor of these extras. She . . . [kept] things immaculate from attic to cellar . . . had a flower garden in summer and potted plants in winter . . . had shelves of home-canned food. . . literally hundreds of jars.” Whew.
Heritage and proximity have destined Eph and a neighbor girl, Lois, for each other. But enter the glamorous city teenager, Shirley. It takes the rest of the book to get that tangle straightened out. Along the way, the reader is immersed in the beauty of changing seasons, the comforts and hardships of farm life, and the social ways of rural communities: “The [farm’s] livelihood . . . had come from the tilled land; the cash which made that life easier, which bought good clothes, and carriages, and machinery; which furnished the houses with solid and handsome mahogany, maple, and walnut; which sent the boys to Harvard or Bowdoin if they wished to go — that cash had come from timber. Towering pines, straight, bare of branches to their feathery tops, had been felled and reared again as the masts of ships. Virgin forests, booming markets, men of keen business sense and unbounded energy — the combination had built a prosperous rural community, and an aristocracy of trade and labor.”
History lessons mix in with funny, frustrating, or poignant human relations, as in all Flint novels. The backdrop is ever the rolling countryside of western Maine that hugs the foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
Breakneck Brook (1939) illustrates another Flint novel characteristic, for it is set on the banks of an actual brook in West Baldwin, Maine. I have splashed in that brook. My grandmother had a talent for combining the real and the fictional into a believable whole. The same goes for characters. Although she always claimed her characters were entirely fictional, friends and neighbors — and foes — were sure they saw themselves or someone they knew in the pages of one or more of the novels. And they probably did. My grandmother, for instance, would attend town meeting, reporter’s notebook in hand, to garner material for her stories. My mother shows up in this story, as the pretty, cheerful, stay-at-home Thurlow Parks. My Aunt Bunny appears as her sophisticated, city-acclimated, older sister Beth. My Dad has been said to furnish the model for the main character in October Fires — I sincerely hope not, as the man supports a mistress on the sly for years, then drops her.
Back to Breakneck Brook. The plot is not unusual, as it tracks the sorting out process of pairing up three women — after several false starts and twists — each with her right man. This book is special to me, though, partly because it describes in detail the climb up to the scenic ledge my mom, her siblings, and a horde of cousins used as a hangout on Saddleback Mountain across from my grandmother’s house. I’ve heard Mother’s stories and seen the family photos. I could just see that ledge from the bedroom in my grandmother’s house where I often slept as a child. The novel confirms and expands upon Mother’s stories.
Back O’ the Mountain (1940). The title, a colloquialism, brings up another characteristic of these novels. Maine accents are notoriously difficult to reproduce, even by professional actors. Yet Flint was able to hear acutely the colorful dialect of her neighborhood, and she devised an accurate system for writing it down. Unlike other lady authors of her day, she also included enough of the local profanity to faithfully fabricate authentic conversations.
This story is about Kate and Sam. Her struggle is to keep house and raise four children on the modest income from the farm that Sam works hard to maintain and improve. This is acceptable and even happy for them until they need to give a home to Sam’s truly “impossible” mother. It’s a wrenching situation on the wider family as well, and is only resolved just in time for the reader to finish the book in peace.
Down the Road a Piece (1941) also sports a colloquial title, which “has more than its obvious meaning. Neighbors may be separated by a mile or more, yet they are bound together by the road which is always open. Though they may know considerable about each other’s affairs, they do not interfere. There’s bound to be talk, of course, but they can live and let live,” according to the Prologue.
This novel lets us see the previous novel’s family situation from the perspective of Kate’s elegant and aspiring younger sister, Elinor, and Sam’s agribusiness-man brother, Clem. The strong bonds of love pull the family at cross purposes, at times, and create new tangles to be resolved. One highlight is, believe it or not, the week Clem and Elinor spend — in and out of each other’s company — at Maine’s annual Farm and Home Week at the flagship state university. This adventure shows us another common Flint theme: Women striving to better themselves and their families beyond their traditional roles without abandoning the home and garden. And the other side of the equation — men, also trying to adjust to the rapidly modernizing era.
October Fires (1941) doth stick in my craw, just a bit. Its theme is how Leroy Varney makes the best of a highly respectable, upwardly mobile, but mistaken marriage, all the while mismanaging relations with his faithful, backwoods mistress. Oh, and also while nursing a decades-long lust for the town beauty. My grandmother really knew how to get her characters into a fix! The protagonist’s strengths are commendable, but his weaknesses wear one down. I wouldn’t mind, except for the gossip connecting Varney with my father as mentioned above. No way.
Enduring Riches (1942) is the last of the series of novels set in the Baldwin/Hiram/Sebago area of Western Maine.
“Judith was the daughter of Joseph, who was the son of Eleazar, who was the son of Deacon Ephraim Squire. Then, if you must have it, the Deacon was the son of Eleazar, who was the son of Joseph, who was one of the proprietors of Squire Township. Later on, and for some unholy reason, the name of this township had been changed to Parkston.”
For “Squire” one could read “Flint” and see how my own ancestry is woven into these stories. I could take you, for instance, to the Deacon Ephraim Flint horse watering trough in West Baldwin, sadly neglected at present.
To continue: “On the distaff side, Judith’s heritage was no less impressive, and by some it was considered more so.”
“. . . very well indeed did Judith know the traditions and standards by which, supposedly, her thoughts and behavior were to be governed.” Yet, she finds herself voluntarily backed into a marriage that nearly wrecks her and her children’s lives. Can she solve this knotty problem without resorting to divorce? I’m not telling, but the title gives you a clue. I believe the title also sums up Margaret Flint’s real-life relationship with her land and her people.
My grandmother’s final published book was the novel Dress, Right Dress (1943), about life in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. Her research material was primarily letters home from her two WAC daughters — only thinly disguised as friends in the story — who had differing ambitions and temperaments. My mother is “Sergeant Nell.” My Aunt Edith is “Corporal Bess.” I was startled and comforted at some of Nell’s advice in letters to her friend, for it could also have been meant for me.
Like all Flint’s novels, this is a penetrating commentary on the times, on social and economic matters, on education and opportunity. In addition, it touches on evolving race and gender relations, as well as the evolving nature of the U.S. military.
An unfinished novel, named (as I recall) Hard Cider, and all my grandmother’s papers, notebooks, clippings from her prize year and other publicity, and copies of her many newspaper and magazine articles are housed in the research library at Colby College in Maine. Most extant original copies of Margaret Flint’s books are in the hands of family, collectors, or in several Maine library special collections.