The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island

The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island

by Linda Greenlaw

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Declared a triumph by the New York Times Book Review, Linda Greenlaw's first book, The Hungry Ocean, appeared on nearly every major bestseller list in the country. Now, taking a break from the swordfishing career that earned her a major role in The Perfect Storm, Greenlaw returns to Isle au Haut, a tiny Maine island with a population of 70 year

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Declared a triumph by the New York Times Book Review, Linda Greenlaw's first book, The Hungry Ocean, appeared on nearly every major bestseller list in the country. Now, taking a break from the swordfishing career that earned her a major role in The Perfect Storm, Greenlaw returns to Isle au Haut, a tiny Maine island with a population of 70 year-round residents, 30 of whom are Greenlaw's relatives.

With a Clancy-esque talent for fascinating technical detail and a Keillor-esque eye for the drama of small-town life, Greenlaw offers her take on everything from rediscovering home, love, and family to island characters and the best way to cook and serve a lobster. But Greenlaw also explores the islands darker side, including a tragic boating accident and a century-old conflict with a neighboring community. Throughout, Greenlaw maintains the straight-shooting, funny, and slightly scrappy style that has won her so many fans, and proves once again that fishermen are still the best storytellers around.

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Editorial Reviews

Boston Globe
Sense of independence is what this clear, proud memoir is all about.
New York Times Book Review
A lot of fun to read.
Susan Tekulve
In her debut memoir, The Hungry Ocean, Greenlaw recounted a monthlong swordfishing expedition off the coast of Newfoundland and discussed what it takes to be the world's only female swordfish boat captain. In this second memoir, Greenlaw confronts the joys and perils of living at home. Over forty, with her biological clock ticking, she returns to Isle au Haut, the tiny Maine island that is her birthplace. With hopes of reaffirming ties to her parents and starting a family of her own, she invests in a lobster-fishing business because it is a much "safer" career than swordfishing. But lobsters are scarce, and eligible men are even more elusive. Greenlaw writes about island life with the same plainspoken lyricism and self- effacing humor that elevated her first book to bestselling status. In the middle of the book, she begins to address her fear of loneliness and old age without a spouse or children, as well as the loss of her mother to cancer and the quickly dwindling island population. Unfortunately, she bails out before fully developing any of these compelling themes.
Publishers Weekly
Greenlaw (The Hungry Ocean), known to readers of The Perfect Storm as the captain of the sister ship to the ill-fated Andrea Gail, gave up swordfishing to return to her parents' home on Isle Au Haut off the coast of Maine and fish for lobster. Her plainspoken essays paint a picture of a grueling life as she details maintaining her boat and her equipment, setting and hauling hundreds of traps with a crew of one (her father, a retired steel company executive), contending with the weather and surviving seasons when the lobsters don't bother to come around. She intersperses her narrative with plenty of eccentrics who live on her tiny island (there are 47 full-time residents, half of whom she's somehow related to). Among them are Rita, the inveterate borrower who's such a nuisance that Greenlaw's parents hide behind the couch when they see her coming; George and Tommy of Island Boy Repairs, who make a horrendous mess of every job they undertake; and Victor, the cigar-eating womanizer who imports a red-headed flasher from Alabama. One of Greenlaw's themes is her desire to find a husband but, according to her friend Alden, she intimidates men: she's tough talking, feisty and very self-assured, which is no doubt why the other lobstermen on the island readily accept her as one of them. Self-speculation and uncertainties such as these nicely balance her delightfully cocky essays of island life. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
To quote from the audiobook review in KLIATT, January 2003: For 17 years, Linda Greenlaw was the best swordfish captain out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, leading the long-line ship, the Hannah Boden. She took a year off from sword boat captaining to write about her life on the ship in The Hungry Ocean. Perhaps shaken by the "perfect storm" that had made her famous (she features in Sebastian Junger's book about that calamity), and that had claimed the lives of all aboard the Andrea Gail, the Hannah Boden's sister ship, Greenlaw returned to the tiny island near Bar Harbor, Maine where her family had lived for generations to move in with her parents and start life anew. These "chronicles" describe life in detail on this small island, with about 40 year-round residents (including hardworking lobster fishermen whose families go back many generations, the postmistress, the first EMTs, and members of various town governing boards), no restaurant, a few summer residents, and a lighthouse that attracts tourists to the tony bed-and-breakfast located next to it. By the end of the five years, Greenlaw has bought six acres of land from her parents and has started to build her own house. Some salty language. KLIATT Codes: SA;Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Hyperion, 238p. map.,
— Susan Offner
Library Journal
Greenlaw's first book, The Hungry Ocean, was a best seller because it was written by a female sword boat captain; her vessel was a sister ship to the Andrea Gail (the subject of Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm); and it was a darn good story. The author has an impressive command of language, combining her own salty remarks with wry and witty characterizations. It also doesn't hurt that she has an eccentric and eclectic group of people to describe in her latest memoir. Greenlaw left swordfishing to return to Isle au Haut, seven miles off the coast of Maine, where her parents live. Confronted with only one general store, no Starbucks, no video store, no mall, and lacking nearly any amenity that most people expect these days, she would be the first to admit she's returned to a simpler way of life. With her retired father as her crew of one, she maintains her boat, the Mattie Belle, and the equipment; sets and hauls hundreds of lobster traps; and wrestles with the weather, elusive lobsters, her mother's battle with breast cancer, and her own biological clock. She returned to this island in order to be closer to her parents, find a husband, build a house, and have children. Despite the isolation and lack of services on Isle au Haut, most listeners will somewhat envy the simpler life and sense of community and family that Greenlaw celebrates. Highly recommended for all public library collections.-Gloria Maxwell, Penn Valley Community Coll., Kansas City, MO Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Greenlaw, who chronicled life as captain of a swordfish boat in The Hungry Ocean (1999), here describes her new work: lobstering on the tiny Maine island where her family lives. Isle Au Haut in Penobscot Bay has fewer than 50 permanent residents, half of them relatives of the author. As skipper of the Mattie Belle, Greenlaw waits season after season for salable crustaceans after setting 500 traps, putting out herring for bait, and watching factory-boat interlopers cruise by without so much as a wave. Our captain provides lots of lobster lore and a stark evocation of the ocean’s ever-present cruelty, including a discussion of hypothermia and death at sea. (Not many of the island’s dozen or so commercial fishermen see the point of learning to swim in the North Atlantic.) Along with matters nautical, Greenlaw describes Isle Au Haut’s anthropology, ethnography, and ethos, delineating the complex genealogy and traditions that bind the islanders. It’s a nice narrative of one year in community relationships: life with Mom (who falls ill) and Dad (Linda’s sole crew member), crazy Rita and the gal who bares her boobs, the sweet preacher and the B&B proprietors. We see small-town civics in action when the Lighthouse Committee runs into trouble and the debate about waging gear war against invading mainland boats runs out of gas. Life on an island has its hardships (no Starbucks!), and Greenlaw is frequently lonely—but more frequently quite self-sufficient. Despite the occasional wayward personal pronoun or misidentification of a biblical character, her writing is clear and sharp. Anecdotes about encounters at the boatyard or general store recall a quieter, less crowded America that now seems rareindeed. Straightforward storytelling and captivating reading: satisfying as a Maine lobster dinner.

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Hachette Books
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5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island
By Linda Greenlaw
Copyright C 2002 by Linda Greenlaw

Chapter One: LOBSTERS

In terms of status, the lobster has come a long way. Homarus americanus, or the Maine lobster, ascended from humble fare to fodder fit for royal banquets in a relatively short one hundred years, a true success story. Prior to the nineteenth century, only widows, orphans, and servants ate lobster. And in some parts of New England, serving lobster to prison inmates more than once a week was forbidden by law, as doing so was considered cruel and unusual punishment.

Lobsters are Arthropoda, the phylum whose membership includes insects and spiders. Although lobsters are highly unsightly, the sweet, salty, sensual delight of a claw dipped into drawn butter more than compensates for the lobster's cockroachlike appearance and the work involved in extracting meat from shell. Yet in spite of prestige and high standing, the fishermen of Isle Au Haut still refer to them as "bugs."

Isle Au Haut (pronounced I-LA-HOE) is a small inhabited island off the coast of Maine in an area regarded as "the lobster capital of the world," Penobscot Bay. In a lobster fishing community such as Isle Au Haut, the calendar year can be best described as a two-season system: the lobster season and the off-season. Because this is true of all fishing communities up and down the coast, and because residents rarely refer to their home by name, Isle Au Haut will be referred to throughout this book as simply "the Island."

Friends fear the exploitation of our Island, and worry that any mention of its name will result in increased traffic to our precious and quiet rock. However, many travel articles in magazines and newspapers (not to mention television features) have run over the years, all touting the wonders of various aspects of life and events on Isle Au Haut, and all this attention has thankfully failed to transform u into the dreaded Coney Island. So I suppose I should be flattered that my friends think it possible that my readership might do just that. Oh, I admit that years ago, when I read a Parade magazine article about the Island's three Quinby children, who the journalist claimed were all geniuses, I briefly feared that every parent on the planet desiring gifted, talented, exceptional offspring might attempt to move here, hoping that this concentration of brains might be the result of something in the air, or the water, rather than the Quinby genes. Happily, nobody came.

Still, as a way of placating my nervous friends, family, and neighbors, I want to make it clear that in addition to the reasons stated above, I am calling Isle Au Haut "the Island" because it really is representative of any piece of land surrounded by water that is inhabited by hardworking, independent people, most of whom are lobstermen. If by chance, in the course of reading this book, you should fall in love with, or become consumed with curiosity about Maine island life, I promise you that visiting Mount Desert Island, Bailey Island, or Monhegan will surely satisfy both lust and curiosity. People there welcome tourism. They have hotels and restaurants. We have nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing. The list of what we do have is shorter than that of what we do not have, and those of us who choose to live here do so because of the length of both lists. We have what I believe could be the smallest post office in the country, and a privately owned boat contracted to haul U.S. mail on and off Island. We currently have forty-seven full-time residents, half of whom I am related to in one way or another. (Family trees in small-town Maine are often painted in the abstract. The Greenlaws' genealogy is best described in a phrase I have heard others use: "the family wreath.") We have one general store, one church, one lighthouse, a one-room schoolhouse for grades K through eight, a town hall that seconds as the school's gymnasium, three selectmen, a fishermen's co-op, 4,700 rugged acres of which 2,800 belong to Acadia National Park, and 13 miles of bad road. And we have lobsters.

We do not have a Kmart, or any other mart. We have no movie theater, roller rink, arcade, or bowling alley. Residents can't get manicured, pedicured, dry-cleaned, massaged, hot-tubbed, facial-ed, permed, tinted, foiled, or indoor tanned. We have neither the fine dining nor fast food. There is no Dairy Queen, Jiffy Lube, newspaper stand, or Starbucks. There is no bank, not even an ATM. No cable TV, golf course, movie theater, gym, museum, art gallery . . . Well, you get the picture.

Lobster season for most of us on the Island begins in early May and ends around the first of December. Some fishermen extend or shorten on either end, but in general, we have a seven-month fishing season, and five months of off-season. Each lobster season is typical only in that it is different from every preceding span of seven months in which lobsters have been fished. There are trends, pattersn, and habits that are observed by every generation, but each individual season has its own quirks, ebbs, and flows of cooperative crustaceans. Still, there seems to be in the fishermen's credo a tendency to be amazed that the lobsters this season are not acting the way they did last season. And each season every fisherman will attempt to think and reason like a lobster in hopes of anticipating their next move. A lobster's brain is smaller and simpler (in relation to its body mass) than that of nearly any other living thing in which some form of brain resides. So some fishermen are better suited for this game than others. I am not ashamed to admit that I am not among the best lobster fishermen on the island.

Although the individual members are for the most part hardy, the year-round community on the Island is fragile. This winter's population of forty-seven people is down from seventy residents just two years ago. There are multiple threats to the survival of the community, most notably ever-increasing land values, corresponding property taxes, and extremely limited employment opportunities. The Island, for most of us, is more than a home. It is a refuge. What seems to sustain the community as a whole is lobster. Every year-round family is affected by an abundance or scarcity of income generated by hauling and setting lobster traps. Other than the fact that we all live on this rock, our only common bond is lobster. Island fishermen are presently enjoying the presumed tail end of a lobster heyday, a boom that has endured several seasons of tens of thousands of traps fished and yearly predictions by biologists of sure and pending doom. Our own little piece of America hangs on by a thread to the fate of the lobster.

A small community bears a heavy load. Elderly Islanders move to the mainland when isolated life becomes too strenuous. Why do we not care for our old folks? Small-town politics creates rifts and scars so deep that some individuals, in fact entire families, have found reason to seek opportunity off-Island. Some who remain are nearly hermits, reclusive family units, couples, and individuals preferring seclusion. Man-made problems are inherent in Island life. Yet in our minds, all boils down to the lobster.

Lobsters are tangible. Lobsters become the scapegoat, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that all threats to our ability to catch lobsters become scapegoats. We have no control over Mother Nature, so she is the easiest target. A major storm could wipe us out, boats and gear gone. Disease has been held responsible for catastrophic lobster-kills throughout the fishery's history. Runoff of chemicals and insecticides has devastated stocks in distant grounds quite recently. I moved back to the Island for many reasons, one of which was my desire to make a living fishing for lobster. Upon my return, it became abundantly clear that the greatest hindrance to my happiness and financial welfare would be what all Islanders perceive as the most palpable threat to our livelihoods: the overfishing of our Island's fishing grounds by outsiders. The threat from the mainland lobstermen was both real and present, and was increasingly exponentially with each new season. It dwarfed any threat Mother Nature had recently made. At the time of my joining the game, it was clear that the situation would culminate in war.

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