Lobsters and love on the Maine coast

By Susan Mustapich | Aug 12, 2017

CAMDEN — Four novels about the lives and loves of the men and women who fish for lobster in Maine give us a close look at the place where we live (or visit) through their authors' eyes.

All of the books center around a strong, 20-something character, along with romance and relationships and the business of lobster fishing. In "The Ghost Trap" by local author K. Stephens, "Stern Men" by Elizabeth Gilbert and "The Lobster Kings" by Alexi Zentner, trap wars, seafaring myths and superstitions play important roles in the stories, while in "Hull Creek," by Jim Nichols, the tension centers around a working fisherman and wealthy newcomers who live on the waterfront

All but "The Lobster Kings" are located in fictional settings that closely resemble nearby coastal and island fishing communities and tourist destinations on Penobscot Bay. Zentner's novel takes place on an island near the Canadian border in a setting that resembles Passamaquoddy Bay.

"The Ghost Trap," published in 2009, takes a gritty, realistic look at the life and loves of fisherman Jamie Eugely, who works out in a bay off of small-town coastal Maine. The setting is fictionalized, yet feels like a very real place, right in the Midcoast.

Jamie, who looks for adventure as far from Maine as he can drive, is drawn back to the fishing grounds his family has worked for generations, and is bound to his fiance Anja by more than a ring. Anja, who suffered a near drowning, struggles to  follows steps back to normalcy, in order to reclaim the life and love she can almost remember. The meaning of the "ghost trap" referenced in the book's title, which is open to interpretation, is connected to the circumstances that bind Jamie and Anja to one another, and make their dreams all the more difficult to catch.

In a recent interview, Stephens talked about the meaning of the term "ghost trap," both in general and to her as a writer.

"The ghost trap is a trap cut off at the surface that lies at the bottom of the ocean.That trap can be cut off by a propeller, or can be cut off by a more nefarious means, in an on-the-water conflict in the dead of night," she said. She imagines ghost traps at the bottom of the ocean. "There are lobsters in there, lives in the trap that will never come out."

"The Ghost Trap features a male lead and perspective on relationships and friendships. Stephens has seen the book draw an equal audience of men and women at book signings. She has heard dissatisfaction from female readers about the realism of Jamie and Anja's relationship. "I loved the book, but hated how realistic it was," is one of the comments she gets.

Stephens, who emulates authors Annie Proulx and Caroline Chute in tackling tough topics, said "The Ghost Trap" "is not chick lit. And it's not a chick lit subject by any stretch. The love story is a huge part of this book. There is an enduring love here in this novel, but it is not happily ever after. It's a novel of sacrifice and tenacity and a lot of pain."

"The Ghost Trap" balances the dark, with the light, for the most part. It is filled with lots of local sights and scenes, believable characters including Jamie's friend from childhood Thongchai, life in the bars, restaurants and convenience stores in Jamie's community, and dialog flavored with "elements of funny, lighthearted, bawdy humor."

Stephens was inspired to write her novel back in the 1990s by stories shared by fishermen friends, and was so concerned about accuracy that she had several fishermen read the book before it was published. At the same time, she makes it clear that as an author, she was not trying to come off as a spokesperson for the lobster industry.

"What was really important to me with this book was not only to be very authentic about the working culture of lobstering, but to also pay a little bit of tribute to the mysterious element of the deep that plays into character choices later on," she said.

The deep Stephens refers to is the cold Maine ocean. In her novel, the oxygen, phytoplankton and zooplankton, that make Maine coastal waters appear murky, give life to lobsters and other sea creatures, both real and mythological. Stephens introduces the myth of creatures that live in the sea into the modern world of lobster fishing in a believable manner. Whether selkies are seafaring superstition, or a trick of the eye and imagination caused by the shape shifting ocean, "The Ghost Trap" gives them substance in the place where a lobster boat sits atop the depths of the ocean.

"Hull Creek" is the story of Troy Hull, the last of the fishermen living and working on the waterfront in a town that wealthy visitors have made their home. The reader sees the world through Troy's eyes and thoughts: his boat, his land and dock, his town with all of its features, his friends and foes, and loves lost and found.

Alcohol-fueled adventures, raunchy dialog and a decidedly male perspective are all part of Nichols' storytelling. Yet, as Troy works to put a failed relationship behind him and fight his own insecurities, his story is a realistic view of vulnerability hidden beneath a hardened exterior.

Troy faces the problem of keeping his generational waterfront home and his new lobster boat, when the lobster catch falls off. When he falls behind on a second mortgage he took out to buy the new boat, he finds himself in the middle of relationships with people he doesn't trust, the banker who oversees his mortgage, an old friend and occasional fisherman who needs help transporting drugs, law enforcement and visitors who want more than the average tourist experience.

Will he allow himself to be pushed out of town by people who clearly do not want him there? Will he give in to the anger and hopelessness that fuel desperate measures to make the difficult choices he faces? "Hull Creek" keeps the reader guessing which way Troy will turn, right up to the end.

Gilbert, author of “Stern Men,”published in 2001, creates a body of history around the families who fish off the fictional islands of Fort Niles and Courne Haven, and moves that history forward with the story of Ruth Thomas, the book's protagonist. Ruth is the daughter of a “greedy” lobsterman and a mother who has left the island. Ruth grows up among a Dickensian collection of character's from a jumble of social classes, all thrown together by island life on Fort Niles.

After Ruth's mother Mary leaves the island, her father abandons her to the Pommeroys, a family of seven boys led by matriarch and beauty Rhonda Pommeroy, and her husband Ira, who enjoy drink and one another a little too much. Ruth is perfectly happy growing up with the Pommeroy boys, and occasionally visiting her father, who lives within walking distance. She prefers spending her days with the odd Senator Simon, obsessed with founding a history museum on the island, and his assistant Webster Pommeroy, while resisting the influences of the Ellis family, the richest clan on the island, and her mother Mary's employer. Lanford Ellis, an ancient and reclusive summer resident is the lone representative of the family that once ran a granite company and much of the island. Ruth grows up knowing that her father and other islanders believe her grandmother and her mother were crippled by their devoted service to Lanford's daughter, the demanding Miss Vera Ellis.

As Ruth nears graduation from a private off-island high school paid for by Mr. Ellis, she meets Owney Wishnell, a lobster whisperer and young man her age, and faces the dilemma of shaping her own future. The history of past lobster wars and the threat of a new struggle, her childhood with the Pommeroy family, and the aging Ellis heirs all factor into her ultimate choice.

Alexi Zentner's "The Lobster Kings" embraces magical realism and Shakespearean themes from the play "King Lear" in a story of three grown-up sisters, and their fisherman father, living on Loosewood Island. The family legacy, interwoven with mythical sea creatures who give and then take away, costs their younger brother's life, then their mother's life, and threatens future male heirs to the Kings' fishing territory. Like "Stern Men," the central character, oldest daughter Cordelia, follows her father's lead, while stubbornly making her own way in life.

The Kings are a unique clan, descending from Loosewood Island settler and famous painter Brumfitt Kings. Cordelia and her sisters, and their father and the novel's patriarch, Woody Brumfitt, are college graduates, and Cordelia and her sternman Kenny are also painters.

The adversaries in this novel are the fishermen of James Harbor, where drug dealing and methamphetamine compete with honest, hard work. Cordelia faces violence and worse, her father's failing health and wounds inflicted in childhood, while fishing her own territory, and facing a trap war with an aggressive James Harbor fisherman.

"The Lobster Kings" and "Stern Men" share one of the plot devices common to chick lit. When Ruth first meets Owney, and when Cordelia finds out that Kenny's wife has left him, the reader will know that sex, love and marriage are in the future, and that many chapters will be read before any of that happens.

Courier Publications reporter Susan Mustapich can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at smustapich@villagesoup.com.

Author K. Stephens. (Photo by: Susan Mustapich)
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